October 22, 2021

‘Train guy’ returns to railway roots

Volunteers are the heart of nonprofits

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mike Brown of Harford found this Union Pacific streamliner train in the collection of the Homeville Museum at the Central New York Living History Center.

Mike Brown never intended to be “the train guy” at the CNY Living History Museum.

“It happened.”

The Harford man, a patent attorney, retired in 2017. He’s been a volunteer at the museum for almost three years.

“I love it — being a volunteer here, getting a chance to talk to people, to talk about interesting stuff, to work on the layout,” he said.

At the CNY Living History Museum, Executive Director Cindy Stoker is the only paid employee. Volunteers are important to area museums. They staff the gift shop, give tours, create exhibits. And more.

Jim Nadge of Homer, a museum volunteer, said volunteers have put in more than 10,000 hours painting, sanding, plumbing, doing electronics, installing wallboard and more at the CNY Living History Museum.

David Lane, executive director at the 1890 House, is the only paid employee at the Victorian museum in Cortland. He counts on volunteers to be tour guides, landscape, do newsletter design and clean and sanitize the mansion.

“I have two intern volunteers right now who are working on grants for me,” he said.

Brown intended to be a tour guide for the Homeville Museum and its military collection.

The CNY Living History Center, on Route 11 in Cortlandville, is also home to the Brockway Truck Museum and Tractors of Yesteryear agricultural items.

But the trains drew him in.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

One display case at the museum features among its models a snow blower engine on top and a helicopter reconnaissance car on the bottom.

The Three Mikes

He and two other Mikes, Mike Stoll and Mike Homrighaus, are in charge of the model train display. And all three also are Boy Scout leaders.

Brown used to collect Lionel trains, until he was 15 and discovered photography. His train room was turned into a dark room.

“I am the official photographer of the Sun ‘n’ Fun Airshow in Lakeland Fla.,” he said. Several of his panorama photos are part of the train display in Homer. He volunteers at the museum once a week, mostly Saturdays.

The museum’s model train collection, largely amassed from the late Ken Eaton, who stocked most of the Homeville Museum, didn’t consist of sets, already in order.

“Mostly they are boxes filled with railroad cars and engines,” Brown said. “It took me the better part of a year to inventory them.”

Cardboard boxes are numbered and the parts inside are listed in a computer database.

“We have close to 2,000 rolling stock,” he said.

Brown has a natural affinity to the hobby.

“I’ve been a ham operator since 1968,” he said. “Electricity and electronics are not something out of line. As a patent attorney, I did research on technology.”

If he gets stuck, he does research. “Lionel has service manuals for everything they have made online.”

The museum displays three train layouts:

  • an O-gauge track layout of Lionel trains, with a design created by the late Doug Deer, a Cortland pastor. O-gauge is mid- to large size model trains that run on three rails.
  • an HO-gauge (half the size of O-gauge) track layout that the three Mikes created.
  • an N-gauge layout, half the size of HO-gauge.

“This layout, someone had given to us,” Brown said of the N-gauge. “But there were no trains. … Ken had N-gauge.”

Brown bought the engine for the train.

“N-gauge is too tiny, as far as I’m concerned. Or my hands are too big,” he said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

An N-gauge train set at the Central New York Living Center. This kind of model train is very small.

The layout with the HO-gauge trains features a Boy Scout camp and Brown’s panorama photos of Harford and Virgil. They provide a local setting and hide the transformers. It features a Thomas the Train, from the TV and book series popular with the children, a military base in honor of Eaton, and a New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway train set for the local railroad in Cortland. “They run right outside our front door,” he said.

“When I started here, we started making an HO layout,” he said. He and the other Mikes didn’t think they’d have enough track. “We do. We had as much as O-gauge. We started working on this about a year and a half ago … the three of us designed this.”

“I just like it. It’s just fun, figuring out what we can do with the layout.”

Trains roll through villages and countrysides, with trees, bridges, townscapes and signs along the way. Kids and adults can press buttons to put trains and their gear in motion.

Making a display When designing a train display, look at the space you have, Brown said. Then take the track you have and set it down to create a layout. Then fill it in with the houses, bridges and other landscape features.

He recommends people use eBay to start their collection, if interested in the older models.

“We learned with O-gauge, you can’t make it four feet deep,” he said of the layout. People like to do that because that is the width of plywood.

But the problem is, it’s hard to reach the track on the other side of the layout.

“You can’t get to stuff in the back.”

In the Doug Deer O-gauge layout, there’s about an eight feet deep section at one point, nestled into a wall. If the train breaks down on the side by the wall, how to get to it?

Brown created a trap door in the middle and covered it with a barn yard display.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Part of an O-gauge train layout at the museum.

After coming up with layouts, the Mikes had to test and repair the trains.

“Three quarters of the trains would not work well enough,” Brown said.

“As we did the inventory, we found neat stuff,” he added.

He pointed to a Lionel Union Pacific Streamliner. “When I first found it, there was only one car. They are designed to never come apart,” he said of the point in between the cars. “They call them unit trains. Wheels are between the cars.”

Then there are display cases featuring say, the first Lionel trains made, which were massive. The standard gauge size trains were so big, Lionel stopped making them in 1930.

Other featured cars include bicentennial cars with different states reflected in the cars, Disney themed trains and apple for the teacher train cars. “Lionel loved to do these. Collectors loved to buy them,” he said.