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He’s saving a 'dying hobby'

Posted: Friday, Dec 23rd, 2011

Joe Mersch checks out a Lionel model train engine, one of many pieces of rolling stock in the "old-time Christmas village model train display" in the Aurora Community Center. / Joe Mersch checks out his "old-time Christmas village model train display," which is set up for viewing in the Aurora Community Center. Photos by John Kubal/Register

• Model railroader sets up 'Christmasy' display

Area residents looking for a small touch of the holiday season – that comes across in a big way – can find it in the old-time Christmas village and model train display at the Aurora Community Center.

The center will be open from 4 to 9 p.m. today and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. It's free, but freewill donations would be accepted.

"It's all Christmasy," said model railroader Joe Mersch, an Aurora resident and the man behind the display, who brought it all together with the help of some friends and family.

This is the first time that Mersch has set up a display in the Aurora Community Center. He had been considering such a display and contemplating where he might set it up, since it takes up quite a bit of floor space. So he was checking out with Aurora Mayor Fred Weekes and maintenance manager Andy Studer what it would cost to rent the recently refurbished Center. They made him Mersch offer he couldn't refuse: free.

It took him about two weeks to get his railroad up and operating in the Center. But behind those few days of work was the layout for it that had about six to seven years of on-and-off work behind it.

"We just hauled that out of the basement," Mersch said. As he got all the model railroad elements in place and wired for power, his sister, Jeanne Mersch, helped set up the Christmas village buildings.

"She's a knickknack collector," he added. "There's a bunch of Christmas ornaments on the table. Those all belong to her. She wanted to bring a few of her things over here, too, to show them off. She has boxes full of this stuff."

Laughing, Mersch added, "I guess it's a bad habit we've got in the family."

Finally, Mersch had kudos for Vicki Schuster, director of Downtown Brookings Inc.: "She took care of the promotion," pulling together ads and publicity.

Half a century of railroading

Mersch, 65, pointed out that the old-time Christmas village and model train display features "the three-rail Lionel (electric trains) that all the kids in the '40s, '50s and even back into the '30s had to play with." He was one of those Lionel kids.

He said, "I got my first train set when I was between 5 and 6. I got a bunch of hand-me-downs from my cousin." But the set didn't stay in the family; another family member saw to that. And Mersch wasn't very happy about how it came about.

He explained, "My first collection, when I graduated high school, I put it all away and headed for Illinois for a while. I got married, came back and my father had given the whole works away."

Laughing heartily, Mersch said, "He's lucky he was my dad. Anybody else would have been in deep doodoo."

He added, "An uncle of mine showed up. He was kind of a con artist, always weaseling money out of people for one thing or another. It went straight to the pawn shop.

"That's back when the Lionel trains were just starting to get in vogue as an antique and collectible."

As he was growing up, his family traveled a lot; his father was in the lumber business. They moved to Toronto in 1954. He lived there until graduating from Toronto High School in 1964.

Mersch is a self-proclaimed "proverbial jack of all trades." He said, "I get bored with one thing, so I kind of jumped around into a little bit of everything my whole life. Primarily I grew up in a lumberyard, so construction has been my basic background. But I've pretty much done everything from outhouses to multimillion-dollar Hewlett Packard projects."

Over the years, he became well versed in all the aspects – large and small – of model railroading. It can be a complicated undertaking for the beginner, but Meresch explains its finer details in language the layman can understand. He'll be on hand and happy to discuss his passion for model railroading with anyone who drops in to see the display at the Center.

Can be a 'spendy' hobby

Model railroading comes in a variety of sizes, or guages, determined by the distance between the rails (In the case of Lionel's three rails, bretween the two outer rails).

Mersch has model-railroad rolling stock in a variety of guages. Much of the display at the Community Center, features Lionel "O" guage – pretty much standard for the company. He started seriously collecting Lionel trains and equipment about 20 years ago.

Mersch explained that Lionel "dabbled in 'HO' a little back in the early '60s and then they got out of it, because it just wasn't their thing." By way of guage comparison, he pointed out that HO is half the size of O. Even smaller is "N" scale, which is half the size of HO.

"If you line them up, they're just boom, boom, boom," going from larger to smaller track scale.

Mersch said that at present "the HO scale is the most prominent. The Lionel is cost-prohibitive for most people; it's spendy."

He grew his extensive collection of Lionel pieces by buying "parts and pieces and putting them together (himself). They're all original parts and pieces." He "puts the pieces together and makes a runnable unit."

Mersch added, "It's the only way I can afford to do it."

Asked about the origin of his Lionel collection, Mersch said, "Most of what I have is American-made, because it's older. Lionel, like everything else today, is now made in China." He did admit that the Chinese-made model-railroading equipment is "really good, quality stuff."

There are several American companies that make custom equipment "for some of the oddball scales, specialized stuff," but it's out of reach for the average model railroader.

Mersch does have a bit of an ulterior motive behind setting up his model railroad in a public setting for people to see.

"I'll do anything I can to get kids interested," he said. "Because this is a dying hobby. The guys of my generation are the ones that are keeping it alive.

"The young people are into their videos and their games like that. They don't get into this.

"It's kind of a save-the-hobby thing that I have in my mind."

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@-brookingsregister.com.

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