Holidays on track: Model trains take the spotlight in Long Islanders’ displays

For many baby boomers, and some younger folks as well, the December holidays are synonymous with model trains.

Many in the postwar generation grew up with Lionel or American Flyer rolling stock running around their basements or attics year-round. For other toy train fans, the miniatures only made an appearance during the holidays: Either portable layouts with a winter/holiday theme or trains that ran under their Christmas trees surrounded by plastic buildings and accessories.

Either way, many fathers — and occasionally both parents — took their sons (and sometimes daughters) to local department stores or hobby shops to pick out holiday presents. And some postwar children fondly remember traveling into Manhattan with their families to visit the Lionel showroom or the famous dealer Madison Hardware to see the latest offerings in hopes they might reappear, gift-wrapped, in late December.

And while the hobby has waned in recent years, model railroading aficionados remain a committed bunch. On Long Island there are still an estimated 2,500 model railroaders, several hundred of them members in about a half-dozen clubs with their own large layouts.

Many cherish their original sets, running them year-round in basements or spare rooms; others unearth model trains only for holiday fun. Many have reconnected with the hobby as adults (sharing it with their own children or grandchildren) after childhood sets were given away by parents who assumed their kids had lost interest in them.

Newsday visited some of these model railroad buffs as they gear up for another holiday season. Here are their stories.

A moment in time

“I’ve been into trains ever since I can remember, probably around 7 or 8,” recalled Edward Surbeck, 77, of Bohemia. “Christmas, birthdays, everybody knew what to get me — something from Lionel,” said Surbeck, who retired from a career in brick paving.

“My parents got married in 1936, and my mother bought my father a Lionel train set because he never had a train set when he was growing up,” Surbeck said. “He said ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to put it around the tree and maybe we should get a few figures.’ ” His father bought lead figures at a discount store to paint and made houses of wood recycled from shipping crates, and his mother decorated them.

When he was growing up in Islip, he said, “We used to go to Sears in Bay Shore and they always had a big layout.” There, Surbeck would pick out what he wanted for Christmas.

After he started college, the trains remained in storage in the basement. “Then in 1998 my wife said ‘Why don’t you put up the trains this year for Christmas. So I said, ‘Why not.’ I resurrected everything and put new snow on top of the buildings and doilies behind the windows as curtains.”

About five years ago Surbeck upgraded his father’s holiday layout by constructing an easier-to-assemble modular one, complete with tunnel. Everything on the 5-by-12-foot layout dates to his childhood, including the Lionel prewar passenger train set his mother bought for his father. He keeps the set stored in its original iconic orange Lionel boxes with the prized stickers showing they were purchased at Madison Hardware.

“I haven’t added anything,” Surbeck said.

A year-round hobby

“I got my first Lionel set in 1956 when we were living in Brooklyn,” remembered Jack Smith, 70, of Port Jefferson Station. “I still have that set. It still works.”

That and other antique Lionel trains have run around a 4-by 8-foot holiday layout topped by a Christmas tree every winter since Smith and his wife, Pamela, bought their house in 1981. Besides the trains, another highlight is four buildings made by Pamela, 67.

After purchasing that initial set, Smith recalled, “my father set it up in the living room of our apartment, and I was totally enamored by it. The next year we moved out to Centereach and the builder had left a whole bunch of lumber in the basement and my father decided to build me a train layout in the basement when I was 7. I really took to it.”

As with many young model railroaders, his interest took a hiatus as he got older. “I kept it up until I went to college, but I saved all the trains and pieces.”

A retired high school special-education teacher for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, Smith said, “it was always my dream to have a layout in the basement. In the late ’80s, my father, who had built a layout in his basement, and my brother who had built a layout in his basement, said ‘What are you waiting for?’ So I finally got my act together, and I had set aside a section of my basement to build a layout, so I did in 1989.”

Pamela, a retired school secretary, made a church, log cabin and two houses from “plastic canvas,” a plastic mesh that she filled in with yarn. Her structures are augmented by others purchased by Jack’s maternal grandparents in the 1930s.

“I may change around the houses but it’s basically the same every year,” Jack said. “It’s nostalgia. It was always something we had at Christmas.”

Lenox buildings sparked tradition

“We grew up with trains,” said Keith Fensterer of Northport. “My dad built a basement layout for us.” Fensterer and his brothers still have the trains that ran in the family home in Hauppauge. “I think it really goes back to both of my grandfathers.” Both built layouts for their children.

Fensterer still has his childhood starter set with a New York Central steam engine, made by Marx in 1952.

As an adult, he didn’t do much with his childhood trains but he did put them around the Christmas tree as his family was growing.

“In the late ’80s, I really started collecting again,” he said. “My sister’s father-in-law was a huge collector and he got me back into it.”

So now Fensterer, 60, keeps the family tradition alive with a four-by-eight holiday layout covered with Lenox Mistletoe Park buildings, currently about 20, a total that goes up by one or two a year, and a track complete with tunnel for his Lionel “Polar Express” — a train based on the 1985 book by Chris Van Allsburg that later became a movie — and postwar trains.

The semiretired planning and accounting executive started his new holiday tradition when his wife gave him a Lenox station 15 years ago. As the collection grew, it was first displayed on bookshelves in his previous house. When he moved into his current home three years ago, he had the room for a stand-alone layout. He places Hallmark vehicle ornaments of the same scale among the buildings.

His daughters, 26 and 28, buy him items for his layout every year for Christmas. “So it is always different every year,” Fensterer said.

Because the growing holiday layout hasn’t been enough to scratch his train itch, Fensterer joined the Nassau Lionel Operating Engineers club six years ago. Meanwhile, he is building a basement layout that will include a “Polar Express” winter scene.

Putting on holiday dress

There is plenty to see anytime of the year on the 35- by-85-foot Nassau Lionel Operating Engineers club layout in Levittown where six trains operate simultaneously.

But this time of year, visitors are likely to focus on three spots where the 42 members of the club, formed in 1983, have constructed scenes for the December holiday season. There’s a movie theater showing the Christmas seasonal classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a Christmas tree sales lot and — new this year — a large Christmas tree in a village commons.

Club president Bob Trnka said the theater was “kit-bashed,” or made from pieces of different model kits. The marquee features different films for different times of the year.

The club’s vice president, Greg Catanese, said members wanted to replicate a Christmas tree sales lot once located nearby on Hempstead Turnpike. Then four years ago they found a rare Lionel Christmas tree sales lot accessory at a train show in New Jersey. They customized it by adding two trash barrels filled with cotton and flashing LED lights to simulate fire and smoke.

Rather than remove the scene after the holidays, Cantanese said, “we custom-fitted two buildings that the rest of the year sit right on top of it.”

The village Christmas tree can be disconnected and removed from the layout after the holidays.

The club is planning to show off its handiwork this weekend and next, COVID-19 guidelines permitting. [See box]

Trnka, 75, of Bellmore, a retired Delta Air Lines aircraft maintenance manager, said that “like everybody my age, I had trains as a kid. I got my first set — prewar Lionel — when I was 4 years old. I still have that set in perfect condition. Each Christmas, pieces were added.”

“When I was younger my dad and my uncle took me to the Lionel showroom and Madison Hardware in Manhattan” before Christmas, Trnka said. “Also the [American] Flyer showroom.”

While Trnka has a layout at home for his postwar Lionel trains, he runs more accurately designed “scale” trains on the club’s O-gauge layout.

Cantanese, 41, a printer from Wantagh, recalled that “my dad says that when I was about 6 months old, he had his Lionel trains set up and he sat me on the table and my face lit up and I went crazy. Then for my first Christmas. when I was 1 year old, he bought me a Lionel starter set, and I still have it and I still play with it.”

He drifted away as a teenager more interested in playing music. Then in his mid-20s when Cantanese was looking for a new hobby, he rediscovered model railroading. He joined the Levittown club in 2005 because “I don’t have room for a layout.”

Family members personified

Susan and Anthony Febbraro live in Bethpage. But during the December holidays, a portion of their living room becomes “Sue and Tonyville.”

That’s what they call a large table featuring winter-themed buildings and accessories surrounded by a track for a Lionel “Polar Express” train.

Susan, 67, and Anthony, 66, started their tradition in 1990 with four miniature holiday houses Susan won in a raffle. “And every year it’s just grown and grown,” she said.

Both grew up with model trains. Susan’s father and then her brother had Lionel. Anthony had his own Lionel set. “I just have one car left,” he said.

The concept for their display is that one end is the North Pole, the center is Long Island and the other end is Manhattan. The majority of their buildings are from Department 56.

It symbolizes what we’re all about,” Susan said. “My son always had a snow shoveling route,” so one of the displays is a boy shoveling snow in a driveway. “This is an ice hockey rink because most of my grandsons play hockey. My husband has had his own auto repair business for 50 years, so I put a gas station in there.

“I bake 18 different varieties of cookies so there’s my cookie palace. My granddaughter is an ice skater so there is a rink and a diner for hot chocolate. Every piece has meaning.”

“It’s definitely the best time of year,” Susan continued. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a train. With all that’s going on this year, we can’t let go of this tradition. It just makes me feel good.”

See holiday model trains

  • The Nassau Lionel Operating Engineers club is planning to hold its annual winter open house at its headquarters at the rear of 2953 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown, from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 6 and Dec. 12 and 13, COVID-19 guidelines permitting. The club asks for a minimum donation of $5 for adults or $20 per family; for details, visit nwsdy.li/NLOEholiday.
  • The Long Island Garden Railway Society will have its annual holiday display at the Cradle of Aviation Museum (Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Garden City) between Christmas week and Jan. 4, COVID-19 guidelines permitting. The 30-square-foot modular layout includes winter scene sections; for details, visit ligrs.club.
— Bill Bleyer

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