I recently visited a childhood friend in the Hershey Mills retirement community near Exton, PA. He grew up in Primos and went to Upper Darby High, but became friends with Jim Musser at the University of Pennsylvania and was even in Nancy and Jim’s wedding.
Our grandfathers raised our fathers in homes across the street from each other in Clifton Heights, so our families were long-time friends, and we were like brothers throughout our grade school years.
He and his wife invited my wife and me for lunch at their clubhouse and to see their home and the rest of Hershey Mills. It was all a pleasant day, and at the end he mentioned he had yet to show us his downstairs basement room.
We followed him down the steps, and when he opened the door it was like stepping into a 1940’s toy store. Over the years he had collected Lionel trains and the entire room was filled with the collection set up on working display tables, hanging from the ceiling, and on shelves along the walls. His railroad setup was all Lionel, but on a shelf he still had his first, tinny American Flyer passenger train that I remember well, even after sixty years. He even had my old Lionel freight train that my mother must have given him after I went off to college. I was glad it had found a proper home.
As children, we often met at the 69th Street Terminal—just we two with no adults—and took the El into Philadelphia. We had no agenda. The city was our playground. We would get on and off the El at separate stops, ride up and down the department store elevators, and ask the clerks with a straight face, “Where do we get the El out of here?” then run off laughing.
But in the Christmas season we would always head to Gimbel’s toy department with its elaborate train display. It was a pure fantasy land for us, a train display far bigger than anyone had in their homes and far beyond what we would ever expect to own.
His collection today is even better. Most train displays are HO gauge that accurately portray something like an Appalachian town in the 1930’s, so real they look like a photograph, but his display is geared to the toy aspect of shear delight that we saw in Gimbel’s, more like a cartoon than reality. It has all of the special operating cars and buildings that I had once dreamed of as I poured over the annual Lionel catalog. (Dreaming of them operating. Owning them would be too impossible to imagine.) He explained he also had poured over the catalogs, but as an adult realized he could now afford them.
He had the car that dumped logs, the milk car where the door pops open and a white-uniformed figure throws out milk cans, crossing gates that lower and a station master who pops out of the station waving a lantern as the train passes by, lighted houses, street lights, everything. All of the working models I had ever seen individually on separate displays were here together on one.
I just hope the next owner will keep the collection together, or perhaps my old friend will donate it to a local museum where it will be maintained and displayed for everyone.