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A restored train, a scale model about half the size of the original William Croo

All aboard for camaraderie

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CROSSLAKE — The gleaming red and gold train sits on a track without any expectation of movement. 

It’s already reached its destination.

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For those involved in the countless hours of restoration behind its installation along County Highway 3 in Crosslake, the train is already doing what it was meant to do — draw attention to a nearby building full of model trains, interactive displays and train enthusiasts. 

Inside, a dedicated group effort provides a look at the region’s railroad history with large layouts and painstakingly handcrafted displays. 

For children, there is a checklist to grab their interest and their young sharp eyes — where do they see bears near a campsite? For older admirers, there are tiny fields of wheat planted row by row in the hand-crafted scenery surrounding the trains with an eye toward accurately portraying moments of history. Crushed rocks from the Cuyuna Iron Range actually fill a tiny replica of the area’s mining industry. 

The nonprofit Northern Minnesota Railroad Heritage Association started in 2006 as the Northern Trackers Railroad Club. It began with an idea from the remarkable Darlene Blazina who doesn’t let her physical challenges limit her vision. Blazina, who uses a wheelchair to get around the museum and operates her computer with her feet, was the impetus for the club. 

Its membership grew built around an effort to share the region’s railroad history. They combine talents and interests in the effort to create the displays in a variety of sizes — HO scale, O scale, N scale, G scale. Model train enthusiasts usually pick a size they like best or have room for in their own homes, but they have a universal goal of sharing their interest in model trains with the next generations. 

To that end, attention to detail goes into creating accurate backdrops for trains from a steam locomotive to modern diesel engines. The trains run past farm scenes, logging camps, mining operations, early settlements, modern cities. Communities have familiar names — Merrifield, Crosslake, Pequot Lakes, Brainerd. 

Donations, sometimes of tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, helped the club get its traction and find a home. 

Club members put years into creating the interior displays. And when the opportunity came to restore a train, formerly at a museum and depot in Dassel, to help attract visitors to see them, volunteers showed up in number to work on it. 

The hope is the new exterior train, done as a half-size rendition of the William Crooks engine at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, will bring in visitors who may otherwise have passed by. So far, it’s working. Carloads pulled in shortly after the train was installed and dedicated in June. People asked if the model train displays and museum were new. 

“So it’s doing what it did for the last 25 years, drawing attention to the activities,” said Joe Hampl who worked on the restoration. “It’s doing for us what we were hoping it would do — put us on the map.”

For the club members, the benefits have gone beyond a reinvigorated childhood interest. Whether their talents and interests are in creating the backdrops or in making the displays work, the effort provides a welcome camaraderie. They learn from each other and the interaction extends to their families and social activities away from the club .

For club members, many of whom are now retirees, the connections link them to their own past and provide a present connection to others. 

Clem Maust grew up in Brainerd near the railroad shops on Laurel Street. His interest in model trains started in first grade at Harrison Elementary School when his teacher asked students to bring in a clipping of a train photo. 

When Bill Bury was 10, he lived about a block away from the train tracks and remembers his mother’s reaction whenever her laundry on the line turned black because of the train’s smoke. Like a number of the club members, Bury received a Lionel  set under the Christmas tree as a child. 

It’s an experience club members relate to and as youthful years turned into adulthood with marriage and children, those train sets were often relegated to dust-covered boxes in attics. 

Dick Elmquist’s experience with trains began on the real versions as a fireman working out of the railyards in St. Cloud. Now he puts his passion for landscaping into the displays for the model trains. 

Bury, a charter club member, said a driving force for many members comes in drawing in children to see the trains they loved when they were kids. Blazina said she enjoys seeing the eyes of the children light up as they see the trains. “We have a lot of good times,” she said. “A lot of fun.”

“As we grow up we go back to being kids again,” Ted Martin said. “It’s for the kids that’s why we do it. But it’s also a fact a lot of the kids are 60 years old and older, too.

“It’s a good group of people.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.

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Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2010 and works as a online reporter, content editor and staff writer. She is a world traveler, accused idealist and California native now braving the winters of Central Minnesota. She believes in the power of human resolve and hopes to be part of something that makes history by bringing an end to injustice in the world. Sarah has worked as a criminal background researcher, high school civics teacher, grant writer, and contributing writer with Causecast.org — tackling every issue from global poverty to bio-degradable bicycles. Her favorite thing about living in Minnesota is July. Sarah left the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2014.
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