model train set on track

East, West, and Back to the Midwest: The Strange Tale of one Train’s Journey

e*Train Issue: Jul 2010   |   Posted in: ,

By Leon Sweet

As a collector of Prewar American Flyer trains, I often see sets being broken up by both sellers and buyers, whether it is done by dealers, auctioneers, or individuals.  It is always a bit sad for me to see this, but I understand that some sets will draw higher prices if sold as individual pieces, as opposed to the whole set at once.  I guess the rationale behind this theory is that some collectors are willing to pay a premium to upgrade one item in a particular set.  Anyway, this is the tale of one such breakup that ended in a happy re-unification.

The set in question is comprised of a Nation Wide Lines two-tone blue 3113 engine with blue lithographed 80 baggage car, 81 coach, and 81 observation that were with their original set box and their original individual car/engine boxes.  Nation Wide Lines, a little known store brand of trains that was produced by American Flyer for JC Penney’s between approximately 1929 and 1932/33, is considered very rare by Prewar American Flyer collectors.

The tale of this breakup begins at Continental Hobby in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  Photographs of this set were used by Continental Hobby in their advertising in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  John Wickland, TCA 68-2306, recalls seeing the set in the late 1980s at Continental Hobby with an excessive asking price, for that time.

My quest for information on the break up of the set eventually resulted in a conversation with Heinz, the owner of Continental Hobby.  He indicated that he initially purchased the set in the Madison, Wisconsin area from the original owner.  I almost laughed at that because I was raised in the Madison area.  Heinz indicated that after trying to sell the set for a number of years, he had a crazy offer for just the 3 cars and split the set up in the 1990s.

Hollis Cotton, TCA 81-16836, a good friend, purchased the engine, set box, and individual car/engine boxes directly from Continental Hobby in approximately 1997.

The cars did not resurface until a Lloyd Ralston auction in March 2002, when they were auctioned with an unusual monotone blue 3113 engine.  Hollis eyed the cars on the auction listing and thought they would be perfect for his engine, boxes, and setbox.  It is now laughable on how right he was on them being a perfect fit for his boxes and engine.  Hollis could not believe it when his absentee bid was exceeded and he lost out on the set.  The winning bidder, the late Bill Tardy, was in attendance at the auction and went home a happy man.  Unfortunately, Bill succumbed to cancer in 2003.  In the spring of 2004, as the bulk of Bill’s collection was being prepared for auction, I expressed an interest in the set through a friend.  The set was held off of the auction; however, I did not realize the value of the set and could not swing the deal at the time.  The set then went to William Kane TCA 92-35510.  On a chance meeting with William at the Great Midwest Train Show in Wheaton, Illinois, I introduced myself and expressed an interest in the set if it were ever to be offered for sale.  In the spring of 2006, William decided to part with the set and I was finally the proud owner of the set.

In the fall of 2006, having an extra boxed Nation Wide Lines – Rainbow set and a similar blue lithographed Nation Wide Lines set in lesser condition, I reserved a table to sell trains at the October 2006 York train meet.  At York, I manned my table in the Red Hall awaiting interested parties, who happened to include Hollis Cotton.  Hollis and I struck a deal on the boxed Nation Wide Lines Rainbow set that I had and we quickly began talking about Nation Wide variations.

I told Hollis of my wonderful blue lithographed set at home and he related to me how he was outbid on a pristine set a couple of years ago.  I laughed, as his story coincided with what I knew of the timing that Bill Tardy had purchased the set that I now owned.  I told Hollis that it sounded like the set in my possession and related how the set came to me.  Hollis told me of his boxes and engine and invited me to see his collection if I was ever in Los Angeles.  I took him up on the offer and made my first visit in November 2006, which coincided with the Cal-Stewart show in Pasadena.  During that visit Hollis showed me his engine and boxes and I promptly forgot about them as I was overwhelmed by the information he had relating to American Flyer.

Ever since our first meeting I have had an ongoing conversation with Hollis about Prewar American Flyer.  In early 2007, Hollis indicated that he was coordinating a display of the first 30 years of American Flyer for the 2007 Cal-Stewart show in Pasadena.  He expressed an interest in me bringing along some items for the display, including my blue Nation Wide cars.  I was a bit reluctant, as I knew that they would be carry-on items for the plane ride, but finally relented.  Rather than just bring the 3 cars, I brought my engine also, as I had questions about the unusual monotone color.

Finally, I was at Hollis’ collection with my set.  He first showed me an advertisement he had from Continental Hobby showing the set (for which he now owned the boxes and engine) and indicated that he had matched his box to the advertisement by the torn price tag.  Looking at the advertisement, I immediately noticed just a few blemishes on the cars.  I unwrapped my cars and compared the cars to the blemishes shown in the advertisement.  Surprisingly, my cars matched the cars shown in the advertisement.  Hollis and I were both astounded that we had the all of the items shown in the Continental Hobby advertisement.  Then upon comparison of my unusual monotone colored engine to his two tone engine, we realized that the body color of the two-tone engine matched the color of the monotone engine.

This began a discussion of one of us purchasing the other’s portion of the set and its eventual re-unification.  Finally after being apart for at least 10 years, the engine and boxes were re-united with the 3 cars that originally came with them in November 2007.  Oddly enough, the set, after traveling to the east coast (cars to Lloyd Ralston’s auction house in Connecticut) and west coast (engine and boxes to Los Angeles), now resides mere miles south of Continental Hobby’s home in Wisconsin and about 2 hours from Madison, where the original owner lived.

Attached is a truly incredible story that I have only told a few friends of and also those who read the description at a Midwest TCA event last year.  I have been waiting to submit it somewhere until I shot some better photos of the set with the correct engine.  As you will note, I photographed the set in my back yard in the sun in an attempt to reproduce the advertising photo of the set.

As for the marks that proved the set was the one in the advertising photo, the remains of the white price tag on the set box and the small mark on the frame of the baggage car below the door on the right, were the marks that caught Hollis and My attention.