model train set on track

The Beginnings of My Model Railroading Experience (and an historical perspective)

e*Train Issue: Jun 2022   |   Posted in: , , ,

My Collection

By Mike Marmer, TCA# 92-35192

1958: Dwight Eisenhower Is in Office

When I was a very young 3-year-old toddler, I remember a train set that my father bought home in 1958.  Of course, I have a vivid memory of this train set being set up at night, in a very short hallway in my house.  From the living room through to another hall way to the bedrooms.   The length of 3 pieces of 10 inch long American Flyer S gauge track all put together.

I remember this long train running with a black smoking engine with the headlight in the front running on the oval of track.  And then the house lights would be turned off, which made this all more impressive to a three-year-old.  The train running in the darkness, only to be seen with a headlight beaming around and around the house.  Then, it was packed away and never brought out again.  I later discovered the train set on the floor of my parents’ bedroom closet.  Big mistake, I started to play with it!!!!!  It was fun.

Somehow the set ended up in the unfinished basement of our house, where it was set up for use and played with.  It was a grand thing too, in the early 1960s.  The engine with the long line of freight cars.  Two box cars, one refrigerator car, a pipe gondola, a wheel wire flat car, and a truck trailer flat car.  Then there were two button cars: a flat car that threw off pieces of wood and a box car that threw out small cans.  Finally, a silver caboose.  The caboose had a light inside it, and a man on the outside that slid out overlooking the train as it pulled away.  My father did purchase an extra car, a 957 Erie Action Box car.  The cars each had its own red and white box that said American Flyer on it, with a picture of a train in a curve formation.  

Box end 1
Box end 2

I was always fascinated by the S gauge track.  The silver looking rails attached to the black metal railroad ties.  At each end of track where it connected to the next piece of track, you have this doubling of two ties remarkably close together.  I always thought that was something in that pattern of tie formation.

The set box was a neat big white box with numbers and writing on the sides, American Flyer, with pictures of diesel engines.  The top of the box had the same picture and a curve steam train picture.  The picture above shows what American Flyer Set boxes looked from at least in the years of 1958 and 1959. 

About 1962: John F. Kennedy Is In Office and TRAGEDY HITS THE 21129!

So I was really the only one in the house who really cared about model trains and I wanted to set up this train and run it.  The picnic table in our back yard was taken down into the basement in the winter and that’s where the train was set up.  One day the whole train set had a great fall, off that table, down to a hard cement floor.  Crash!  The engine was a thick solid metal shell and I noticed that the engine cab roof had a slight right side inward dent.  The plastic tender had two steps missing on one side, which was common for these plastic tenders.  Also, the caboose had one broken step.  This may, or may not, have been due to the fall.  The other freight cars all looked okay.

So, pre-1964 the engine was no longer getting power to run.  And that is how it stayed for quite some time.  I would set the train up and push it with my hands.  I had it set up the MARX Fort Apache items and sort of did the wild west scenario in my mind with all of it’s indians and soldiers at the fort fighting it out.  Later on it was set up with the Army men, using the trains in a war, like World War II.  Hey, I was seven in 1962, it’s the Cold War era!

My father, who really had no interest in model trains, did buy a cheap Pike Master set in 1964, with no set box and no caboose.  It was weird!  The track was different, did not work with the track from the Flyer set, and it had cheap non operating couplers.  That pretty much ended me with Flyer as I thought there is no future for me in S gauge trains.  Ha!  Little did I know what would happen 50 years later.

At that point I got into HO trains! Varney was my first set in 1965.  I figure that I must have a curse on model trains, as every maker of trains I touch goes out of business.  American Flyer, Varney, S Helper Service, wait, S Helper.  (Although that won’t happen for another 40 years to come.)

1969: Richard Nixon Takes Office and the 21129 Hudson goes to the Model Railroad Center

I really never forgot that first American Flyer set with the 1958 Hudson.  I wanted to get it fixed and knew that it would be up to me.  There was a kid in Jr. High Band class in 1969 who told me about Model Railroad Center in Rockville, MD.  I am now 14.  I have a newspaper route for the Washington Daily News and I figure I should have enough money to get the 21129 running again.  I made about 11 dollars a month from my paper route.  The only way I had of getting to the Model Railroad Center was to take the D.C. Transit bus to Congressional Plaza on Rockville Pike, which happened to be the route I took to my clarinet lessons!  I took the engine with me one Saturday.  I walked along Rockville Pike from Congressional Plaza to the Model Railroad Center.  This was a 6 lane highway with no sidewalk.  I walked past the land for Woodmont Country Club and there was no other development along the road!  It was winter, it was cold, and it was a .8 mile walk one way.  And a .8 walk back to catch the bus for home!

I got to Model Railroad Center just fine and it was an amazing shop.  There were products on display, a counter with people behind it, and rows and rows of parts and other inventroy.  I gave them my engine with the tender and was given a claim check.  I do not remember how long it took to repair, but when I came back, it was a sticker shock, the bill was around 12 to 14 dollars, all the money in the world I had on me.  I had no clue it was going to be this much, but then I was not given an approximate amount to expect.  But it was a repair I would have had done anyway.

1974:  The Energy Crisis, Richard Nixon Leaves Office, Is Replaced By Gerald Ford and The 21129 Hudson Makes A Return Trip To The Model Railroad Center

All heck breaks out for Nixon in 1974 and for me!  Over time I was building a large HO train layout, but I still would run the 21129 Hudson.  I graduated from High School in June of 1973, and entered the University of Maryland for the fall semester.  The train bug was still with me.  In January of 1974, on my way back to UM in my 1973 Ford Maverick,  I stopped at the Model Railroad Center.  It’s a cold winter day again, with snow on the ground, but I am driving there this time, not walking!

The place is pretty busy with a lot of activity.  I get in line with my engine and tender.  The problem this time with the engine is that one of the drive wheels has separated.  The wheels are an outer wheel and an inner one to get electrity to the motor.  There is a two prong plug to the tender that pulls out when taking the engine and tender apart.  One of the wires to the plug was broken, so no current gets to the engine.  I also took in a AHM HO Diesel engine that needed some work too. 

I hand over my engines to the person behind the counter, get a claim check, and leave for UM.  I am one month from turning 20 years of age but a model train disaster is about to unfold!  School starts.  (As this is now 47 years ago my memory with things start to fade a bit.)  I had a rocky start to my college days, more than you can imagine, but so did my American Flyer Hudson.  I never got a phone call about the engine repair.  January turned to February, February turned to March, and Springtime arrived.  I have not heard anything from The Model Railroad Center.  The Center, I believe, was one of the largest model train places, not just a store, but like a automotive center for model trains.  Bigger than Corr’s Hobby Shop, which was in D.C. for years before moving to Rockville.  (So many train and hobby shops back in the day!)

So, I drive out to Rockville to see if the engine work is completed.  The store is in a strip mall type shopping center, in the back side of the center, not visible from Rockville Pike.  I pull into the parking lot.  and the store is  COMPLETELY DESERTED, EMPTY OF EVERYTHING, DOOR IS LOCKED, OUT OF BUSINESS!!!!!!!!!!  Wait a minute!  THEY HAVE MY 21129 American Flyer Hudson complete with tender and AHS engine, what the heck is going on!  I call the phone number of the business on the claim check and of course like most businesses out of business, the phone is disconnected!

So what do I do now?  The business is closed, I do not know the owners names, I do not know who to turn to for help to recover my engines, that I left in good faith.  The item is not worth enough to contact a lawyer.  I have never been faced with a situation like this before, so this is a completely new experience for me.

I went to Red’s Hobby Shop on Ennalls Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland.  They had been in business for as long as I can remember.  As a kid, I would go into that shop many times, buy HO trains and some used American Flyer.  Thankfully the owner (Stirling G. Huntley) listened to my story.  I think he probably of heard many stories like mine, due to Model Railroad Center closing and not contacting anyone.  He gave me the home phone number of the owners, a father and son, Stuart Davison and Stuart Davison, Jr.  I wrote that home phone number on the claim check I had and thanked the owner very much for his help.

1974: I Make The Call, March

I hurried home with the phone number and called not knowing if this phone number is still a working number.   Dial, Dial, Dial, its Ringing!  And someone picked up the reciever!  I do not remember exactly how the call went, but I was polite.  I found out that this was the Davison residence, and explained that I had some engines for repair at the shop  The man said that they were still going to do the repairs to the engines I bought into the shop.  I was not going to question his intent (like was he really going to call me and let me know the situation?)  It’s been over two months since I brought the trains to his store.  I am not sure when the store closed, how suddenly, or why.  So okay, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that the work will get done.

So, now I know where the engines are and they are in safe hands.  I have not lost them.  Time goes by, months actually, and I call the house and get an answer that they are not ready.  Okay, thank you.  I never heard from them, so I try to keep remembering to call them.  I try to call every 6 months, but I think at times it might go longer.  1974 becames 1975.  I call, not done yet.  1975 becomes 1976.  I call the house again, the engines are not done yet.  WOW.  This is serious?

1976:  A New Adminstration Jimmy Carter Shocks The World

And I call the house again, the engines are not done.  College goes on and with some rough semesters, but now, I am doing really well in my major in Marketing, and my weekend job becomes a Weekend Supervisor of the Tissue Culture Department.  Really!  College at UM keeps going on, but my engines are not ready.  At least the phone is not disconnected!

It is now 1977 as I end my 4th year at the UM, but I am on the five year plan to graduate.  $363 dollars a semester, I work 3 jobs every summer and that seems to pay for school and living.  The trains are put away, I am no longer living at home, and the HO and S trains are in a friends attic!

1977 leads on to 1978.  It is finally time to graduate.  Jim Henson, a fellow graduate gets a honary degree.  But he and Kermit are no help in getting my engines back to me.  There are no jobs in 1978, due to a really bad economy, so I did many things in life that year.  Eventually selling shoes at a department store and flipping burgers at night at a A&W.  Kids wonder why go to college if all you get is a job flipping burgers but all I wanted were my engines back.  I become a assistant manager of a Arby’s, then a General Manager of the busiest Arby’s on the East Coast in Rockville.  But no engines will be served this year, 1978.  Just not done yet, and I do not question why. 

Now if you think about it, I was a teenager, age 19, when I bought these model train items to The Model Railroad Center of Rockville, MD and now, well now, I am 24.  And to quote a very famous person who used to be in the TCA, with his custom bus at the bi-annual York train shows:

Old Man, (Mr. Davison) Look at my life, Twenty-four, and there’s so much more

Live alone in a paradise, That make me think of two (You and me)

Train lost, such a cost, Give me things that don’t get lost

Like a Train that won’t get fixed, Rolling home to me

I leave Arby’s to go work for the Family Fish House in 1979 and I leave in 1980 to go work for a very small food distribution to the food service industry.  But no engines to be seen in the new upcoming decade.  It’s been 6 years, Man is still alive and the engines, well I have no clue.

1980: HAPPY NEW DECADE!!!!!!!!  The Ronald Reagan Years Begin.

With the new decade there is new hope for a great career in food service sales, but I wonder what is the hope for my engines getting repaired and returned back to me soon!  I excelled with the limited product lines carried by the food distribuion company.  When as I started taking customers away from a larger competitor, they said “Why don’t you work for us!”  So I was hired.  My career took off as it was a great career move that would lead to a lot of good things.  But that did not help in getting my trains repairs done.  Its now six years since I took these trains to the shop and I wonder if I will ever see them again.

1981:  March 30, Ronald Reagan Is Shot And I Meet Someone Very Important That Day

So now it’s a cloudy Monday morning in March, just like any Monday morning as Spring rolls on.  My career in food sales will be one year old come mid April.  I visit my accounts in Montgomery County, Maryland: Sandy Spring, Olney, Wheaton, and Rockville.    At about Noon on I go to a Rockville Nursing home and spend time there talking to the foodservice director.  I kept trying to get her to take on some other lines of product.  (One does not make a living in a account on just 4 boxes of veal patties at 3 % commission)  After I was done, I head down MD 28 into the main part of old Rockville and I see this building down a long drive that I never noticed before.  Turns out this is the grounds of Chestnut Lodge, a private Pyschological hospital.  I see this as a opportunity for a new account.  I am directed to a new modern 1950s building that is the food service operation.  The dietitian is not in the office, so I wait.

A young lady comes out of the office and starts to talk to me.  We started to talk about what a food sales person does and other interests.  Trains did not come up, but biking and the outdoors did.  In the end Linda Wilce gave me her phone number.  We will be married 39 years come July 31, 2021 (Yes, it’s baseball trading deadline!)  Ronald Reagan was shot at about the same time I asked Linda for her phone number. 

I keep calling Davison’s about every 6 months, maybe a year, nope, engines are not done.  It is now 1983, Linda and I buy a townhouse.  1984, becomes 1985, its been 11.5 years that the engines I took to The Model Railroad Center of Rockville, MD for repair have been gone from me, with the Staurt Davison Sr. and Jr.  I have had enough.  I told Linda, as she knows the whole story by this time, that I am going to call the Davison and tell them, “I just want the engines back, no matter if they are not finished with the repair”.  I said it nicely.  I believe I have been talking mostly to the son on each call as his reply was “They are done”.

I nearly dropped the phone.  Great!  Stuart brought the engines to the house.  He showed up in a beaten up VW van. He brought the engines into the house.  He was filthy, he smelled, I gave him a check, he gave me the invoices, the engines, and he left.  Never to be seen again.  The total amounts for the repairs that took 11 years and about 8 months to the exact day was $17.51. The one thing he did tell me was that delay of the return of the engines was those separated wheels for the Hudson.  He would glue them together and they would separate again.  But 11 years and 8 months? 

He completely rewired the engine with table lamp cord.  The wire that broke at the plug, I later learned is a easy fix.  You just pull out the brass pin, expose new wire, push it back into the plastic plus, push in the pin, done.  Oh well!

And there you have it, but wait, the story is not over!

Receipt 1 
Receipt 2

I do have the claim check somewhere, in a envelope, but when I finally came to write this story, I can not find it!  The home phone number is still on the check.  Both father and son have now past away.

My 1958 set

So, at this point, I have the engine back, it looks great, and I put it on a shelf in the living room.  I have no clue about American Flyer trains and trains overall being collectable, as it seems one can collect just about everything.  So, I have no knowledge on the value of this engine or the cars that came with it.  The train bug once it hits you, as a kid, it never leaves you.  I have been thinking about getting back into model trains after I got the two engines back, but I was undecided, torn between HO and S.

It was on our annual trip to Maine in 1991, that got Linda and I into trains and got us back into S gauge.  I wrote about that trip and the trains we found for e*Train some time ago.  How George Herbert Walker Bush Got Me Back Into Model Trains.  When we got back, I wanted to get the 21129 Hudson into service again.  We found a hobby shop in College Park, MD, called Barrett’s.  We went there with the engine, but his wife said that the owner was at a train show.  I was a bit reluctant to leave the engine, since the owner was not there and explained why.  She understood and assured me it would be okay.  She gave me their home phone number too.  I left the engine.

When I picked up the engine, I got to meet the person who did the work.  Mr. Barrett gave his American Flyer products to be serviced to Ralph Loveless.  Ralph explained that the engine wiring was previously redone with table lamp cord which was bad.  The original plug wire was gone, which I knew, sadly, as it was a thin, black, and green.  Ralph did not have the original type of wire, but he put the proper gauge of wire on the engine.  I have since then, found two original plugs with the correct wire for the engine.  Ralph explained to me that this engine is one of the rarest engines made by the A.C. Gilbert company and today it lists in excellent condition at $1356.   But with the slightly bent roof for the cab and two steps are broken on the tender it would be less.  However, it could be worth 2 dollars, it does not matter, it was a part of my childhood, I would still want it back.  Ralph introduces me to the Train Collectors Association.  He and the late Robert “Bob” Tufts signed my TCA application. 

The big reason is that Gilbert went from a 3-digit number system on its freight cars, passenger cars and engines to a 5-digit system in 1958.  However, there was a lot of inventory on hand from the 3-digit era, so they used up that product.  But it was amazing news, as the whole set is worth a lot of money.  Unfortunately, I threw away the set box, because being in the basement took a toll on it.  Even so, a set box in poor condition recently sold on eBay for $800.

The set I have, has all 5-digit boxes, with the silver caboose being new for 1958.  However, the the flat car with the tractor trailers and the flat car with the wire wheel, came as 3-digit cars with the boxes stamped as five digits.  The caboose was so new in my set, the box end flap for description is handwritten in ink.  The wire wheel flat car has fallen in price to $736 in Excellent condition and the flat car with the trailers list at $1666 in Excellent condition.  In 3 digits they are very common cars.  A 5-digit trailer flat car just sold for $3300.  I have rebuilt this set with all the 5-digit cars and engine in like new condition.

American Flyer 1958 catalog
Inside the 1958 catalog

The pictures of this set are from the 1958 Catalog.  Retail price at $82.50.  I am sure most places sold it for less as minimum wage in 1958 was $1.00 an hour. On the next page they show the engine for sale by itself. I have a 3-digit number, 326, as that is the common variation of the Hudson.

But the other factor that made these items rare was the economy in 1958.  First Quarter Growth fell 10%, the worst since WW2.  But growth comes back very strong in the 3rd and 4th quarter.  I am sure model train production took a big blow over all.  I think that the 1958 American Flyer catalog is the most beautiful catalog in AF history.

Since I joined the TCA, I have rebuilt every set in the 1958 catalog, getting the last two pieces needed just this year.  It was fun and it was expensive, but I do not collect for investment.  My collection has been accepted by the TCA, where it will go one day.  Thank you for reading, I have had a note on my computer screen to write this story about my Hudson engine for the last two year or more.  It kept getting put off.  Now to find that claim check!  I do have a video of the set on the layout that I made in 2021.  Enjoy the show!