Is it possible for a train to catch fire? And many other Train Stories!
General Bob Davenport, TCA #58-257
By Chris Allen, HE 95-40580 and Carol R. McGinnis, HE 95-41066
The series of articles on the National Toy Train Museum Oral History Project continues with a sit-down with General Bob Davenport, TCA 58-257 and Chris Allen, TCA HE 94-40580.
Bob (and Carol was one of the few that he allowed to call him that) was always polite, firm, and confident. He, his companion Polly, and Carol would often talk at the conventions. We miss his jokes and his smiles. Carol’s husband, Chuck, and Bob started their relationship by having a conversation before each banquet as to the correct placement of the flag prior to his giving the opening prayer and the pledge to the flag. And his words of wisdom and respect “You may approach” when being assisted up onto the stage!
General Bob met with Chris at the 57th TCA National Convention in 1995 in Seattle, and the discussion ranged from Bob’s early childhood, to his favorite trains, to his time in national office.
Starting as a young boy of five Bob always had toy trains. His uncle, out of the blue, gave him his first set which was a Lionel 402E, a couple of cars, and a caboose. He would set up an oval of track at Christmas and run it. Then, each Christmas after that, his uncle would add some other accessories or cars and he was able to build up quite an extensive Lionel standard gauge layout. He took care of the set, and still had it when he was interviewed! His uncle, being influential, had a friend who was the owner of a local New England hobby shop, and they would always negotiate some great deals. Bob noted that this was before discount stores!
Now it must be mentioned that General Bob’s great grandfather was Charles Davenport. He was the first to produce a standard coach for the railroads. He “went into business for himself in 1832 in Cambridge, Massachusetts In 1837 he built the entrance door and platform steps at the ends of the car, instead of the side, thus opening a passageway through a train from car to car. In 1838-1839 he built the first 8-wheel car, to seat 60, and in 1840 the first 16-wheel car, to carry 76 passengers.”
Before Charles’ innovation, each train car would have to go onto a turntable at the end of each trip to get turned around for the return run. He was asked by the railroads to put iron wheels on the cars and designed the couplers and trucks too, which he did. Soon after, he came up with the center aisle design with flip-back seats. These reversed at the end of the line which became the standard for many years, eliminating the need for the time and effort loading and unloading the turntable.
At the family home there wasn’t a lot of room, so the trains were set up in the attic. At dinner time one night his three year old kid brother came down to the table and asked innocently “Is it possible for a train set to catch on fire?” His parents said no, no, and brushed it off. But during dinner they saw smoke, and rushed upstairs to find that he was talking about the transformer which had been left plugged in, and which is now boiling its fluids. Fortunately, that was the worst part of the damage but a train story for the ages!
As a child Bob would send a dime in the mail and get Lionel catalogs. He would read through them and mark off what he wanted to get, then carefully put the catalogs away, stored in the attic. While he was at war, the edict came from the Air Raid Warden back at home to clear out your attic and get rid of anything that was burnable. So, instead, his mother hosed down everything!
Coming back from the war Bob found that there was a big interest in used toy trains. He became interested in foreign items, particularly Märklin (which he pronounces meer-kleen). He met Ted (Edmund) Hindmarsh (TCA #57-200) and Archie Kennell. Archie was the Märklin distributor for the East Coast and Bob picked up many items for reasonable prices. This began a long profitable relationship for all parties. He even acquired two Crocodiles!
One of his train collector friends, LaRue Schempp (TCA #CM-58) asked one day if Bob could manage to part with one of the Crocodiles. Bob had him come for a visit and, since LaRue was so very serious about the acquisition Bob sold it for $375, which was quite a bargain! Bob points out that “in those days” TCA was a friendly association and we did things for one another. There were often instances at train meets where if you were away from your table and someone wanted a five dollar car, the five dollars was left on the table and would still be there when you returned. Bob noted that this was “Different a little from now-a-days.”
Bob’s wife was at first reluctant to get into the hobby, but later on she saw the beauty of the workmanship and the paint schemes on the Märklin trains. She went so far as to hold one car, with their son holding another, and Bob holding the engine, to take their Christmas pictures each year! You could tell which Christmas it was by which train they were holding! Trains were on shelves upstairs in the hallway, and in a bedroom with one wall of windows and three walls of shelving. She didn’t want trains in the living space of their home, but soon came around to allowing (Bob says authorizing!) an engine or some other nice piece on the living room mantle.
Bob says that he joined TCA “as a consequence”, after Hindmarsh, one of his earliest train buddies never invited him to join, the rascal. Bob joined in ’58 because he found that this was an association where he would benefit from meeting others. At that time there was no club in New England so he, and a couple of others, went together and formed the New England Chapter (Division) of the Train Collectors Association. His wife, although not a member, was their volunteer secretary and the first meeting was at their place in Massachusetts, in the country. Many people came and Bob remembers one wife, Edna Hammond saying to the other ladies in the group, “My husband is a nut! See all these things.” But, it wasn’t long before she was buying stuff for him! So that’s it… “It was a disease that we all enjoy.”
Bob’s favorite train set, while he always seemed to be able to find and pick up Märklin, remained his first Lionel standard gauge freight set. He began collecting the items that were advertised in the 1937 issue of the catalog. When the center spread of the catalog was opened and placed in front of the shelves in his home office there was almost a perfect match. He had picked up the gray mountain, a crocodile, and other important pieces. This was quite an accomplishment! He also favored a set of Blue Comet cars that his wife picked up for him one Christmas. When the locomotive showed up the following Christmas he was surprised at the perfect match! He still has the set and his son will eventually get it, as he wants the set mom gave Bob. He thinks that some day he might start collecting a different category, but after all, he’s only 90 so he wants to wait until he’s older!
TCA was just getting started when Bob found out about the club. There had been casual mention of a group getting together to discuss trains. He decided that if he was going to collect toy trains he should associate himself with others who could steer him in the right direction and who could give him some good leads. He found that he was able to provide information as well as gather information and this made him happy. He knew about half of the membership at that time, which is quite different from today. But, while he may not know everyone, everyone at train meets seem to know him and this gives him much satisfaction. He always has a good time at a train meet.
Bob became a mover and a shaker in TCA. His New England Division held the first national meeting on the East Coast at a Hotel 128, in 1963. Prior to that national conventions in the East were held in private residences, museums, community halls, or Ed Alexander’s Barn. They established a time table schedule and set up guarded display areas. You can’t imagine the angst when collectors came down at 5 AM in the morning and couldn’t get in to buy, trade, or sell trains! When cooler minds prevailed everything simmered down and there was a civilized collectors meeting.
Every collector that Bob met was unique, and there are so many that stand out in his memory. At one of the New England meets the group took a PCC trolley ride out to the end of the line. As they got on Lou Redman (TCA CM-3) was with them. The fare was only 25 cents, and the group decided make a game of the trip and to pay the way for every passenger that got on. The passengers were quite surprised and grateful that day. When they got to the end of the line Lou mentioned to the driver that he had a certified trolley license, so the driver let him make the return run, picking up passengers and all. A great time for the TCA group as well as the passengers!
One of the greatest thrills for Bob was the opportunity to travel to all parts of this country and be exposed to new things, make new friends, and find out more about the administration of TCA. He left an imprint on the history of TCA. He was responsible for bringing Bruce Manson (TCA 69-2795) and, of course, his wife Anna (TCA 74-7168, Honor Roll) from the West Coast to the East Coast, Bruce served for many years as the Train Collectors Quarterly Editor. Bob also was responsible for starting the position of president-elect. He felt that it was unseemly to vote somebody in as president who TCA knew nothing about and making him president and then throw him into the fire and that this process was not in the best interest of the association. Now the position arrangement assured that the president-elect would get background and experience in dealing with issues as they assisted the president.
General Davenport was recognized in many places, including the October 2014 edition of Train Collectors Quarterly:
Bob’s experiences and recollections bring back a lot of good memories about the times that we all share together. He was as unique an individual as can be found in TCA, and it was such fun to spend time with him.
More of Chris and Bob’s conversation is available at the National Toy Train Library. Contact our Librarian for information.