Christmas Train Show Charms Even Kids

One of the things parents hope for is that their children will like some of the same things they do. It helps bridge the generation gap.
This is especially true for grandparents – and doubly so in the digital age of kids barely tolerating their technologically challenged elders. With this in mind, my wife and I bundled up our grandson Grayson Saturday and toddled him off to the model railroad show in Old Boise.
This wasn’t the first such outing. A lifelong train buff, I have tried and failed to interest any of our other kids or grandkids in model trains – a pastime I enjoyed almost obsessively in my own childhood. Reasoning that part of the trouble could have been that the kids were too old, usually between the ages of four and six when carted off whining or pouting to train shows, I vowed to start Grayson off at an early age. He is one.
Well, almost two, actually. Old enough.
The show is in the basement of the Pioneer Building at Sixth and Main streets. It was in an upstairs room of the building for 13 years, but ran out of space; thus a recent move to larger quarters downstairs. This year’s display is three times larger than the old one. It has towns and woods, a gas station, a church, a hobby store, a Pillsbury factory. It has freight trains and passenger trains, steam and diesel trains, two switchyards, 120 switches, 1,200 feet of track …
The display is operated by the Old Boise N-Scale Model Railroad Club, which club member Jim Brostmeyer describes as “a group of about 15 guys and gals who love trains.” Though not always open, it’s a permanent display. That allows club members to make improvements year-round.
It shows. The structures, scenery and train layouts are meticulously planned and executed. N-Scale is the second smallest model-railroad gauge, allowing a lot of elements to fit in a compact space. By comparison, the Lionel trains popular with children are about three times as large. Club members have operated trains more than 100 cars long.
Impressive as the display was, I had misgivings about how it would go over with Grayson. Was he too young to appreciate the hard work and attention to detail that made it possible?
Probably, but it didn’t matter. He loved every minute of it. We stayed for an hour, and he smiled non-stop. Only afterwards did we learn from his mother that one of his favorite cartoons is “Thomas the Train.” The kid is a born train buff. That’s my opinion, at least, and no amount of logic is going to talk me out of it.
Surprising as it may be to traditionalists, model trains have gone high-tech.
“The lights are LED lights,” Brostmeyer said. “They make the scenery and figures pop, and they’re totally green. Two years ago, we went to a digital command control system. Every locomotive has a computer chip and its own address. There are no limitations; we can run as many trains at once as we want. You can even run them off of your cell phone. It’s a mix of old-school and today’s technology.”
Today’s surprising fact: an early form of digital command control was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Neil Young, himself an avid model-train buff.
It’s no secret, however, that old-school toys such as model trains have lost popularity with recent generations. The club is working to turn that around, and if the response to Saturday’s show was an indication, it’s succeeding. Train geezers were outnumbered by young parents with small children, and all of them appeared to be having a marvelous time.

One of the show’s displays is a game that teaches kids what trains do by matching railroad cars with the loads they carry. Another asks them to find elements of the display – signs, a Union Pacific repair shop, a windmill, etc. Videos play non-stop, kids can check out train-related materials from a small library, and there’s the occasional visit from Santa.
“Santa loves trains,” Brostmeyer said. “He comes here on his breaks.
“… We try to have things here for little kids to pique their interest in trains. One thing trains have going for them, unlike video games, is that they’re real. When kids see these trains and understand that they’re scale models of real trains and you see that spark in their eyes, that makes it all worthwhile.”
To help him make the connection, we took Grayson after the show to see Big Mike, the 1920 steam locomotive at Boise’s depot. He seemed a bit overwhelmed, which wasn’t surprising, actually. For such a little boy, Big Mike is probably just too much train.
But there was no doubt that a connection of some sort was made. From the time we got home until the time his mother picked him up, he said the word “train” roughly 116 times.
One of his Christmas gifts from us, a Thomas the Train set, arrived on our porch Tuesday. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he opens it on Christmas morning.
Unless some shameless train junkie has already opened it with him first.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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