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