It’s late March, and it’s still winter in south-eastern Minnesota. Monochrome snow, dormant trees and salt-crusted roads greet the eye every time you’re forced to go outdoors. A person longs for warm sun, the varied shades of green in grass and healthy leaves, and the vivid colors of spring flowers, yet the days trickle by, every hour a century of subjective time. When not working, you prowl the house, growling about projects not yet done, undoing the piles that have built up on counters or tables and piling the things up somewhere else. Any time you sit down to relax in front of the TV, you’re driven to your feet to prowl the room again, irritable and frustrated – you’ve got cabin fever, and you need a cure.
Then, if you’re lucky, your eye falls on the lower corner of the local paper, lying haphazardly on the kitchen counter. “Randolph Railroad Days,” you read. Interest sparks, and your eyes devour the short ad. In to time at all, you’re sent back into your childhood memories of playing with trains (real, heavy metal ones, that ran on a 3-rail electric track). You remember your youthful ambition to be an engineer. And you can hardly wait for the dates listed in the paper, two weeks distant; will they have model railroading displays? Will there be a real train? (Does Randolph even have tracks?) Ooh, and what about slide shows and history and people to ask questions of and maybe I should finally get into model railroading and oh, should I call my buddy the train enthusiast to come with us?
Randolph Railroad Days (or as the guiding signs refer to it, the “Train Show”) has been held in the tiny Minnesota town of Randolph for now nine years running. (And if not for that chance glimpse of the paper, I still wouldn’t know of its existence.) “It started as – and it is still – a fundraiser for the Randolph Area Historical Society,” says Will Grovender, the original creator of the event. He talks of that first year with a fond half-smile on his face, when it was only on Saturday and was called “Hobo Days” and they had some people that came with small card tables of models and little things in the church basement. “And it’s gone from that, now, to filling gyms and next year it’ll probably fill up most of the school,” he chuckles. “It really surprised me,” he adds.
This year, the model railroaders filled one gym in the Randolph Area Schools all on their own. Several different model groups were represented, and I learned about the different model scales (N, O, S, HO), the turn radius of the different tracks and the capabilities of the associated train, and that the Lionel train my brother Ted had growing up is actually not a scale model. One gentleman’s specialty is small layouts; one of his runs about two feet, stops, waits 13 seconds and then travels back – all without human intervention. He demonstrated for me one he was working on, a shunting puzzle where three separate tracks can mix-and-match until the cars are in the order you want them.
Everyone I spoke to is enthused, friendly and happy to share this hobby with anyone who is interested. Model railroading is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, according to Jerry of the Rambling River Center Model Railroad Club. Older folk who had put their trains away are taking them back out as younger folk are becoming interested in scale modeling, which has the net effect of encouraging manufacturers to be sure everything from scenery to track is available.
Models get intricate and detailed as well as fun; one setup had a drive-in with a train running along the ridge above the film screen (playing a Baby Huey cartoon when I was looking at it); on the back side of that model, a flying monkey perched in a tree over the tracks. People are limited only by their imaginations. One look at the grins on Tom and Matt, a father-son team, as they carefully time two trains on the same stretch of track, and I know that imaginations are the one thing that isn’t limited in this gym.
And the vendors in the second gym, down the hallway and across the cafeteria? They’re selling everything from track to memorabilia and books galore. And they have no problem crouching right down on the floor to section track together, right there at the show. I hated to leave – I wanted to talk to everyone. I wanted ideas. I wanted to buy O-scale track and an engine and start modeling, myself. I wanted to watch and listen to every video of every steam train ever recorded. I wanted to build a modular table and find a shirt that says, “I still play with trains.” What a cure for cabin fever!
Plans are already in motion for expanding the model and vendor areas for next year. Will also said that a special guest, Choo-Choo Bob’s “Engineer Paul,” attended Saturday to tell stories and entertain the kids, and went on to say that next year the Historical Society is going to invite special guests for both days.
On our way out of town, we stopped by the track just south of Interstate Mills. Now owned by Progressive Rail, who also owns the old malting plant in Cannon Falls and leases the track between them, their presence is putting a bit of life back into the area. This year, they conducted tours of their facility, and had on display a real engine that works in their yard attached to a fully-restored caboose from the old MNS (Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern) line, merged into non-existence thirty years ago.
I was fortunate enough to talk with one of the engineers who drive this very train – a diesel electric. He showed me the controls, reviewed the engine specs, and gave me the history of Progressive Rail in relation to Randolph. Honestly, I had no idea just how closely tied the fortunes of the town are to the railroad.
I look forward to Randolph Railroad Days next year, to more stories and tours and enhanced model trains with realistic sound effects. Maybe I’ll even dig my brother’s train set out of our parents’ basement and set it up over next winter. The possibilities are only limited by my imagination.