KEARNEY — Barrett Jones, 21 months, scrambled up onto a stool last Tuesday and busily pressed four colorful conductor’s buttons at the Model Train Zone railroad layout at the Kearney Area Children’s Museum. “He loves the choo-choo,” his mother, Erin Jones of Riverdale said.

Brynley Langrud, 18 months, peered into the big plexiglass windows and stared at the six trains chugging around the display. “The train is one of her favorite things here,” her mother, Nicole Langrud of Kearney, said.

Kids of all ages are why the Dobytown Kiwanis Club built the model railroad at the museum. Paul Braden — who, with Dobytown Kiwanians Marv Dawes and Glen Powell maintains the exhibit — loves watches children mesmerized by the locomotives chugging past little villages and mountains and farms and bridges and merry-go-rounds.

“We’ve had parents say, ‘We didn’t see the rest of the museum. We spent two hours watching the trains,” Braden said. “It’s surprising that kids come in and simply watch the trains after all the electronic items they deal with all day.”

Traci Winscot, the museum’s executive director, added, “This is something they’ve either never seen or don’t see at home.”

Dobytown effort

The Model Train Zone is a project of Dobytown Kiwanis. It’s just one of the efforts that earned the club the Kearney Hub’s Freedom Award for service clubs in April.

Led by (the late) Kiwanian Myron Haines, the display was built in the 1980s when the museum was located at Avenue A and Railroad Avenue, the current site of Brigham Lofts. Eventually, when the museum moved, the display was put into storage due to lack of space.

In 2009, when the museum built its spacious facility at Fourth Avenue and 58th Street, a new, automated Dobytown Junction Model Train Zone was created for it in a space 20 feet by 20 feet. The effort was led by Haines, Dobytown Kiwanian Trish Kenagy and former club member Mark Malmkar, who has since moved to Washington state.

Planning and building the project racked up 1,700 volunteer hours and $7,000 in initial planning funds. Other participants included the Tri-City Model Railroad Club, the NE-IA (Kiwanis) District Foundation, Inter-motion, University of Nebraska at Kearney students and other donors.

“It was a very involved process to build the layout, the benchwork, the plexiglass windows, all that,” Braden said. “Kiwanis folks came in the evenings, whenever they could. It was a very involved process,”

Funding for the exhibit came — and still comes — from the Kiwanis club, private donors, a $5,000 grant from Union Pacific, and the Tri-City Model Railroad Club. When Haines passed away several years ago, his layout and rail equipment were donated to the Model Train Zone, along with a $2,000 gift from his memorial fund.

Tri-City, whose members come from Kearney, Hastings and Grand Island, built seasonal displays for the little windows in the train depot in front of the display.

The grand opening took place in May 2010.

Chugging along

The trains start running when the museum opens and chug around the track up to six hours a day, “a lot longer than a model train in a basement might run. That might run for an hour a day. This is six hours,” Braden said. It’s up to him, Dawes and Powell to keep the system working.

Every few days, a car carrying what’s called a scrubber pad — it looks like a piece of Velcro — is put on each train. The pad is on the bottom of the car and cleans the tracks as the train travels around. “It works like a pencil eraser,” Powell said. “Since the trains go around the same way for hours and hours, they can wear the flanges off the tracks, and the trains derail.” The scrubber pad keeps that from happening.

Braden handles minor repairs himself, but for major projects, he takes pieces to Randy’s Roundhouse in Lincoln.

Computer power

The trains are run by a computer system hidden under the table. It is maintained by Inter-Motion at 2600 E. Highway 30, a company that builds and retrofits grinding machines for heavy industrial companies like Eaton, Caterpillar, John Deere.

Several years ago, the company repaired the train’s 24-year-old computer system. “Surprisingly, we couldn’t get into the computer anymore,” Braden said. “Inter-Motion came and did whatever magic they needed to do.”

Riding the rails

Kids can do more than just watch. They can sit at a small stationmaster area and work a functioning telegraph built by the Boy Scouts years ago.

They’re as fascinated as children were 60 years ago when model trains were a mainstay in American basements, but “after the moon landing in July1969, that changed. American eyes turned upward, into space,” Braden said. “Model railroads take a lot of work, time, expense and space, and no one has that kind of time anymore.”

Each train consists of one diesel engine and between four and nine cars. That puts about 30 cars on the tracks at any given time, Braden said. “We have quite a stash of extra cars and extra engines. From time to time, people have donated things. It’s often an estate issue. Somebody didn’t know what to do with them, and when they became aware of the train layout here, they called,” he said.

When new pieces are needed, Braden purchases most of them on eBay. “They have some of the older stuff that is older and lasts longer. Its motors are better,” he said.

The layout and trains are not toys, but scale models, he emphasizes. The newest addition to the fleet of engines is Union Pacific’s 1943 Spirit of Union Pacific, a model of a new diesel that pays tribute to each branch of American military service. It also has a flag for veterans Missing in Action on the back. The locomotive recalls a plane by the same name in WWII that had been purchased through a UP employee War Bonds drive.

Real railfans

Railroads are in Braden’s blood. “When I was 6 or 7, other kids went to baseball games, I went to derailments,” he said.

His father was an assistant division engineer for the Chicago & Northwestern railroad, who was assigned to determine the causes of derailments and work to prevent washouts. When there was a derailment, he’d take Paul along to the site.

Braden, whose email is toottoot45, also calls himself “the Christmas train guy.” For the last 20 years, he and his wife Peggy have set up a train layout in their garage every Christmas season and opened it to the public in the evenings. The rest of the year, he delights in watching the children at the museum.

Tuesday morning, Lincoln West, 4, who lives in Manhattan, Kan., came to the museum with his grandmother Connie West of Elm Creek. “This is his favorite thing here,” West said. “He hadn’t been here since Christmas, but he remembered the trains.”

For Powell, the children who watch the railroad are as magical than the trains. “The younger they are, their look of wonder is priceless,” he said.

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