, Salem, MA

December 27, 2012

A rail good time

Annual train exhibit brings miniature worlds to the Wenham Museum

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — WENHAM — It’s train time again at the Wenham Museum.

“The kids all love trains, especially the young ones,” said Rob Flanagan, train curator at the museum.

That is why, as a museum devoted to the history of childhood and family life in New England, it always has toy trains on display.

But in addition, every two or three years, the museum brings in a new exhibit to complement its permanent model railroads.

“The goal is to bring in some visiting train layouts from outside the museum, as well as some educational features,” Flanagan said. “It’s part of a series of exhibits that started way back in the ’70s.”

For this year’s “Train Time 17” exhibit — the 17th the museum has held — Flanagan, who lives in Beverly, drew on his personal collection to construct a pair of layouts on the museum’s ground floor.

With help from Flanagan’s son Eric and friend and frequent volunteer Al Coughlin of Malden, the tracks, stations, trees and tiny human figures took two weeks to assemble.

One layout measures 4101/2 square feet and features Lionel model passenger trains, running on an O-gauge track that was popular in the 1950s and ’60s, Flanagan said. O-gauge is scaled at a quarter-inch to 1 foot.

Following the train around the track, visitors can imagine being a passenger, traveling through a familiar but alternative world.

“The big O-gauge goes through a varied layout,” Flanagan said. “There’s a sea scene at one end, with a North Station-type station. Then it fades off into a little bit more of a residential small town area, and finally winds up into a much more rural area and an airport.”

The layouts are typical of displays that, in the past, were commonly seen in department stores during the holidays.

The smaller layout features “a vintage standard gauge” with “mostly Lionel trains” running on it, “basically items from the 1920s and ’30s, the kinds of trains you would have gotten under the Christmas tree,” Flanagan said. “That was the golden age of toy trains.”

The exhibit also includes kerosene train lanterns, donated by George Small of Cumberland, Maine, hanging from rafters above the layouts.

“They were a device for communication,” Flanagan said.

The lanterns have differently colored glass globes that would be waved by brakemen and conductors to signal their engineer or personnel at a station.

“Train Time” will be supplemented from Jan. 19 through 21 by a National Model Railroad Hub Division Modular Railroad and on Feb. 15 and 16 by a Lego train exhibit.

The museum’s 10 permanent model train exhibits were installed starting in 1997, when several new galleries at the museum were completed.

“We began to put trains and build layouts in what is now the Ben Merry Train Room,” said Ben Merry, who served as train curator prior to Flanagan. “By 2000 or 2001, it was pretty much filled, but not completed in any way.”

The Merry Room is downstairs at the museum, but there are also permanent historic displays and train layouts on the ground level.

These include The Arnott Railroad, which was created by a professor at Tufts and was originally housed at MIT.

As a holiday treat, a layout with a winter setting is assembled near the museum entrance every year around Christmas.

“A Mr. Baker called me from Salem and said, ‘I have a bunch of houses I built many years ago, would you like them?’” said Merry, of Danvers. “So around 2001, we decided to use them in a layout. He passed away before he saw it, that’s why we named it ‘Bakersville.’”

Merry, whose father gave him his first model train in 1927, said the collection at Wenham Museum is unique.

“We have every gauge and manufacturer,” he said. “There’s really nowhere around that I know where you can see so much, where they always have docents to explain things and repair the trains.”

“The children come in, and they love it,” he said.

If you go What: "Train Time 17 Model Train Exhibition" When: Through Feb. 24. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Where: Wenham Museum, 132 Main St. More information: Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 1 to 18. Group rates are available with advance registration. or 978-468-2377.