model train set on track

Standard Gauge at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens

e*Train Issue: Jun 2003   |   Posted in:

By Robert S. Butler

Photographs courtesy Mark Heppner, Stan Hywet Hall

Just before the October 2002 Eastern Division TCA Meet in York, Pennsylvania my friend, Peter Bowler, called and wanted to know if I knew where to purchase standard gauge track. I told him that I couldn’t think of anyplace offhand and, since I knew Peter’s train interests do not include standard gauge, I asked why he wanted to know. It turned out that he had recommended a toy train display to the curators of the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens as part of their Christmas 1930 theme. The museum is a National Historic Landmark located in Akron, Ohio and was built between 1912 and 1915 by F.A. Seiberling, the co-founder of Goodyear. This historic estate has 65 rooms and is surrounded by 70 acres of landscaped gardens and grounds. The name is Old English for “Stone Quarry”.

Peter suggested the trains in a March 2002 meeting with Stan Hywet officials and while the curator seemed interested nothing more was said. Several months later Stan Hywet’s CEO of the museum gave Peter a call and wanted to know when he would be available to set up a display. Peter contacted Lionel and they agreed to the loan of a Standard Gauge Hiawatha for the Christmas display. When the train arrived Peter inspected the set and realized that track and transformer were not included. Peter has plenty of modern Lionel power but no standard gauge track- hence the call.

I had started collecting Standard Gauge when I first became a member of the TCA but as time went on I became less interested and ultimately restricted my interests to O gauge. In spite of the loss of interest I had kept the few items that I had collected and, since I had once had plans for a large standard gauge layout, I had tons of standard gauge track on hand. When he told me of his predicament I told him that I wouldn’t mind loaning it for such a purpose.

At this point in the story, you know more about Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens than I did. When I volunteered to loan some track I assumed that the display was going to consist of a small loop of track on a train table. Peter quickly disabused me of that notion and he told me that it was going to go on the floor around the Christmas tree. Knowing nothing of the display situation or the museum, but being only too familiar with the problems of floor level train displays, I expressed concern about such things as crowd control, accidental damage due to careless passersby etc. Peter then told me what you read in the opening paragraphs of this story and he told me about the museum’s methods of crowd control, docent presence, area isolation etc. After thinking it over for a bit I said that a floor layout sounded acceptable and I agreed to provide the track and the lockons for the display.

We talked a bit more and then, just before he hung up, I asked about a station for the train. Peter said that he was only planning to have train and track. I thought that was completely unacceptable and I said, “A train always has to have a station. Let me see what I can do about that.” After hanging up, I went up to the train room and rummaged and thought and settled on my Pride Lines Ives reproduction glass dome station and a number of Pride Lines standard gauge painted, lead cast, figures for the station scene. In addition, I decided that there needed to be at least one recognizable train signal so I added my Lionel standard gauge semaphore to the to-be-displayed list.

Peter called a few days later, we agreed on a time, and so on the evening of Friday, November 15th, with cold wind and rain hurrying us on our way, Peter and I drove to Stan Hywet. We arrived about 7PM. In spite of Peter’s briefing and a little bit of reading on my part, I was still picturing Stan Hywet as nothing more than a rather large house. In my mind, the room where we were going to set up the display was going to be a big room with the usual eight-foot ceiling. I imagined there would be some antique furniture and, undoubtedly, an elaborately decorated six-foot Christmas tree. When we arrived it was dark and the rain was turning to a mix of snow and sleet. Mark Heppner, Vice President and Curator-Museum Service Division, met us near the rear entrance and waved us towards a parking area. We pulled into an area behind a building and as we got out of the car I got my first reality check. The house was a Mansion! A Very Big Mansion! We each grabbed some boxes and Mark led the way. We climbed some stairs, threaded our way through the old kitchen and headed down a very long corridor with high ceilings. The room, the Great Hall, with the Christmas tree was a monster affair with solid flagstone flooring, an immense fireplace, and a huge balcony/second story passage. The Christmas tree was 20 feet tall.

“Down By the Station Under the Tree in the Great Hall”

In addition to guided tours, the museum hosts events of all types and that evening there was a very elegant dinner in progress complete with costumed Madrigal singers. Mark pointed us to the cordoned off area around the tree. We set down the boxes of track, transformers, and tools and went back to the car for a second trip. The train had already arrived. Its’ multiple boxes of orange and blue were stacked under the Christmas tree like so many unopened gifts. As we set down our covered boxes and began to move things around a few of the guests and docents gave us a casual once over and continued with the festivities. Peter and I took off our shoes (to walk on the antique rug under the tree), stepped over the ropes, and preceded to set out huge strips of white flannel under and around the base of the tree.

The Madrigal Dinner in progress occupied several of the rooms and as a result there was a steady stream of guests passing back and forth behind the ropes. Not much notice was taken of our efforts while Peter and I moved the white flannel into position. With the flannel adjusted to our satisfaction we opened the boxes and pulled out the track. Bingo! In an instant we became the focus of a small army of constantly changing sidewalk superintendents.

As our work progressed, the questions started. In between questions we were regaled with story after story about each superintendent’s “first train set”. Just like the building of the first transcontinental railroad, the more track we laid, the more interest we generated. It was obvious that any number of observers would have gladly paid for the privilege of stepping over the ropes and working with us as assistant toy train gandydancers. We reached that point in the construction where we had to stop to take measurements and make adjustments. This “idleness” was too painful for the army of “senior railroad officers”. Like any boss they felt obliged to offer good natured comments concerning our lack of activity (Jeez, wouldn’t you know it. Lying down on the job. You mean we have to start talking salary increase already? What’s the world coming to, etc.)

Off duty docents made repeated trips in to check on our progress. Anticipation was building and we were having some trouble with the track plan. With everyone so obviously interested in what we were doing, Mark decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull some of the trains out of the box and set them off to one side for all to see. This move was about as calming as pouring gasoline on a fire! The minute he did this, the number of visitors and repeaters increased yet again. Now, in addition to friendly banter, one could hear people murmuring things like, “Oh, look at those trains! You know, we’ll have to come back and see this. Etc.” The display of the Hiawatha also evinced some concern for historical accuracy.

“That train looks like the 1940’s version of the Hiawatha” said one Super.
“True,” said another, “But isn’t that train station supposed to be from the 1920’s?”

I nodded, and the second Super continued, “Well, there you have it. The display this year is to be Christmas 1930. Add 1920 to 1940 and take the average and you have 1930. It’ll do just fine.”

We soon discovered that we had to cut a piece of track in order to make everything fit so Peter drove home to get a vise and a hacksaw. I started in with the standard gauge track clips that were attached at each track joint to prevent the track from working loose as the train rolled. Peter returned and after we cut the section everything fit perfectly. By now it was after eleven and, with a last wistful look, the docents and the others connected with the museum bade us a “good-night” and left. Mark went around turning out lights throughout the mansion until only the Great Hall remained lighted. Peter and I started in on wiring and track adjustments (setting cardboard strips under the rug for even roadbed). I pulled out the station and began erecting its glass dome over the track down towards the front of the tree. I had brought along some small light fixtures and these were carefully threaded into the building to give illumination. I set the Lionel standard gauge semaphore next to the station but I did not power it. Finally, at 12:30AM all was ready. Peter turned on the transformer and I stood up and shouted into the darkened silence, “Boooooaaard!” Peter cracked the throttle; the Hiawatha let out a terrific chuff and started rolling. The digital sound worked like a charm and the whistle was just grand. We found and corrected a few minor bugs in the trackwork and on the engine trailing truck and after several more loops and a good engine lubing we declared the railroad open for business. Labors finished, we sat for a while, watching the train roll and listening to the whistle echo through the Hall. Finally, we turned off the train, loaded the leftover track in Peter’s car and drove back to his place. We transferred the leftover track to my car and at 2:15AM I rolled into my driveway in Shaker Heights, locked the car, and tired and happy I staggered upstairs to bed.

I have imagined many things as far as toy trains are concerned and I have thought of doing and have done many things with them but I must admit-I never imagined doing anything like this.

“In the Great Hall Even Standard Gauge Looks Small!”

And how did the public react to these efforts?

The e-mail from Mark Heppner says it all!

Sent: Tuesday, January 07, 2003
Subject: Train

Greetings Peter and happy New Year!

I am happy to report that the train display was a smashing success and that it ended without any major problems. I cannot thank you enough for generosity and assistance. I took some pictures of the layout and hope they turned out all right.

Thank you,


And in an e-mail to Lionel…

Subject: Train Set

I wanted to inform you that we have just wrapped up another hugely successful Christmas program here at Stan Hywet and that your loaned train set was, without a doubt, the highlight of the season! The layout and its operation were wonderful and it added so much to the overall experience of our visitors (some 10,000 folks!). There were more questions about the trains set, Lionel LLC, the donation, etc. than there was about the historic Christmas presentation! I was amazing to see grown adults turn into children in a flash! I have taken many photographs that I will forward onto you as soon as they are developed. I only pray I did the layout justice!

Best wishes in 2003,