MIDDLEBURY — Some people can recapture their childhood through old photographs, friends, foods and fond memories.
But Paul Bortz uses a different vehicle to transport himself down memory lane — a train. Actually, more than 500 electric and toy trains that he enthusiastically collects and shares with his family and the public.
“It was going back and remembering my early childhood, when I had (toy trains), but they sort of disappeared,” said Bortz, a retired minister who is now 70. “Part of the journey of aging is ‘coming home.’ So I am coming home.”
And Bortz has more than enough locomotion for his voyage into nostalgia. A fraction of his growing train collection — which he began assembling only four years ago — is on display at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History through Jan. 14 as part of “A Child’s Delight,” an exhibit featuring antique toys, games, historic photographs and holiday decorations. A highlight of the exhibit is the Midd-Vermont Train Club’s elaborate electric train layout that is sure to delight all ages. The Midd-Vermont Train Club (of which Bortz is a member) is celebrating its 20th year of designing layouts and operating the electric toy trains at the Sheldon, which has become a holiday tradition. Over the years, the layout has grown and now stands three levels high, with two tracks running Lionel O-gauge trains and the upper track running HO trains.
As Bortz demonstrated to an enthusiastic crowd at the Sheldon on Dec. 13, there is no shortage of train sizes, varieties and price ranges for an inspired collector. Bortz’s samplings ran the gamut from cast-iron, tin, lithograph and pull-along toy trains from around the turn of the 20th century, to large, elaborate electric trains from the production heyday of the early 1950s. Some of the more sophisticated trains in Bortz’s display featured sleek, smoke-belching locomotives and passenger cars accurate to the last rivet and toilet bowl. Each of Bortz’s 13 grandchildren have their name affixed to their favorite of grandpa’s collection.
The first electric train to steer its way into Bortz’s post-childhood fleet was a No. 33 Lionel standard-gauge railway model. Lionel Corporation, founded in 1900 by Joshua Lionel Cowen, became the gold standard brand for toy trains that remain prized and highly collectible to this day. American Flyer, Marx and other manufacturers also joined the fray. Bortz would acquire — and is still acquiring — scores of other trains, track, signals and rail accoutrements for his collection, making transactions at hobby shops, shows and through eBay.
It has been a fun journey during which Bortz has also gained an appreciation for the history of toy trains — which is directly tied to the real-life rail industry the toy industry has sought to emulate.
Bortz noted how the design of toy trains evolved to mirror the larger-than-life versions that whisk passengers and cargo throughout the U.S. and the world. The toy industry through the years has tailored its products to two varieties of consumers, Bortz noted: Children and novices is the first type and serious collectors is the second. The first would be content with basic, inexpensive models for frequent play; and the second willing to pay top-dollar for the best antique models for investment, display and careful use.
“You can get a good Marx set (trains, track, electrical transformer) for under $75,” Bortz said. As for the most expensive variety, Bortz simply said, “Your jaw would drop.”
There was a lot of jaw-dropping at the Sheldon among a crowd of all ages who saw, and held, some of Bortz’s prized trains — some big, some small, some wind-up and most electric. He explained that some of the earliest electric trains were used by stores to playfully tote merchandise on tracks through windows to gain customers’ attention.
“(Merchants) found that people didn’t want the merchandise as much as they wanted the trains,” said Bortz, who also collects vintage train catalogues.
The public’s enthusiasm for toy trains grew as the rail industry added passenger trains that would become more sophisticated and luxurious throughout the years. At the same time, the toy makers were careful to produce low-cost versions to reach all income levels, Bortz noted. The less-expensive versions were most abundant during the Great Depression. When America entered World War II in 1941, industries shifted to war production, thereby suspending the manufacture of metal toy trains for several years.
“Lionel made a model paper train and it was a complete bust,” Bortz said.
But the industry made up for lost time after the war. Returning GIs and their young families had some disposable income thanks to a kick-started economy, and it seemed like no toy chest was complete without a train set.
“Tremendous demand had built up,” Bortz said. “There was an explosion.”
Demand for electric toy trains hit its apex in 1953-1954, Bortz noted, followed by a rather precipitous decline in interest. The reason: Emergence of the automotive industry. Trains were no longer as “hip.”
“Truman was the last ‘train president,’” Bortz said, alluding to the nation’s transition to Eisenhower’s interstate highway system.
The presence of Bortz’s train collection touched a chord in the many folks who witnessed it.
“We’ve got our own set of trains at home,” said Ed Mitchum. “Every year the grandkids come in and say, ‘Ahhhh!’”
Chip Malcolm fondly recalled an American Flyer train set that his father gave him more than 50 years ago. The set became so elaborate, he said, that ‘We had to leave it up all year because it took too much time to set it up and take it down.”
Roth “T” Tall recalled being constantly on the road for work during the 1980s and encountering a fellow train enthusiast during his travels. Tall said he tried to buy the man’s collection, but it wasn’t for sale at the time. But Tall never forgot that train set and ended up purchasing almost all of it when it came up for sale around seven years later, on the West Coast.
Sharon Strassner said her father got so involved with toy trains that he opened a hobby shop in the basement of their home. He would sell and service toy trains in that space, and one of Strassner’s chores was to help clean and maintain the merchandise.
“I couldn’t keep my hands off those trains,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.