Genoa Township Some Mich. residents keep passion for model trains Taking control of trains transports enthusiasts back to their youth

By Jim Totten

Livingston County Daily Press & Argus

GENOA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Don Gressler stands over four large black transformers, deftly moving the levers that control four Lionel trains cruising over his homemade train set.

Bells ring, steam whistles blow, and lights flash at crossing gates.

His train set features a wooden trestle, several water pumps, a church, farm, several depots and numerous tunnels and two levels of track. Some of the pieces are from his father's train set. There's more than 500 feet of track, and the entire display covers 15 feet by 18 feet. The 71-year-old retired engineer spent nine years creating his final train set and figured there's more than $10,000 invested in it.

"This is my last hurrah with the trains," he said.

Model trains might be toys, but they're so much more to an older generation of men like Gressler. As kids, they grew up creating model train displays when trains were still being used on a large-scale basis and represented technology moving forward. The model trains also created a bond between fathers and sons.

"It takes me back to the train sets my dad made," the Genoa Township man said when he's at the controls. When his grandchildren take over the controls, he said, "Son of a gun, that was me 60 years ago."

He proudly opens a photo album with black-and-white photos of an intricate train set created by his father in the early 1940s at their home in Pittsburgh. Gressler remembers his father's favorite part was watching him couple and uncouple train cars.

"My biggest disappointment is my dad can't see this," Gressler said.

Gressler said he loves building things, and he's proud of the scenery he created in his set. He used chicken grits to create the ballast for the tracks, which is much cheaper than using model train ballast. He created some of the buildings when he was a child, and his wife, Nancy, helped paint many of the cars and vehicles parked in the display.

His display takes up an entire corner in his basement of his home in the upscale Oak Pointe subdivision. At a different home in the same subdivision, another train enthusiast, Al Kolis, has created his own model train world.

"My layout is like a memorial to my father," Kolis said.

Every year, Kolis and his five brothers would play with the train display set up by their father around the Christmas tree. In 1992, his father, Alfonse, gave him the old train sets and helped him put it up. Al Kolis' wife was pregnant at the time, and his father died suddenly of a heart attack on the day of the baby shower.

"It was our last project together," Kolis said about setting up the train display.

With his own children, they created a model train display that was constantly evolving. He wanted his kids to play with it and use their hands, which they did. He said his children put toy soldiers over the set along with "Star Wars" figures and die-cast metal cars. His one son created a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's a great family activity," he said.

Kolis said model trains are more than just a hobby to him.

"I can have a bad day at the office, and I can go down to the train room and disappear," he said.

"It probably lowers my blood pressure," he said.

When he's at the controls, Kolis said, "I'm a kid again."

Published: Wed, Jan 19, 2011

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