All aboard for Sheldon Museum’s model train exhibit

MIDDLEBURY — There’s something wonderfully old school about trains at the holiday season. It’s a time to dig out the heavy, metal locomotives, set up the rails, connect the circuits, and let the trains chug faithfully around the tree, circling presents and mesmerizing the cat. Forget screen time, trains are good ol’ fashioned toys.
Don’t have a train to play with at home?
That’s OK. The Sheldon Museum in Middlebury has an excellent holiday train exhibit for everyone to come enjoy, complete with Lionel trains, hills, valleys, farms, villages, a skating pond with lead skaters made in the 1900s, a Green Mountain backdrop pained by Cornwall artist Gayl Braisted, and a whole lot more. Now in its 26th year, this annual exhibit recently got even bigger.
This past April Larry Maier and Ed McGuire spearheaded the task of remaking the large mountain on the right-hand side of the scene.
“The old mountain was kind of falling apart,” Maier explained. So they built a new mountain — that’s modular and much easier to put in storage — complete with a gondola ski lift, skiers, a snowboarder doing a flip, rock climbers, and tunnels through the mountain.
This year, Maier and McGuire led the train crew of 15 volunteers. Gerry Slager of Bristol is a new engineer this year and Christie Sumner of Lincoln has helped for a number of years. Setting up the display takes a lot of work, lugging all the platforms, track and other materials up from the Sheldon’s basement and down from the attic. Fifteen students in Jack Burnham’s class from Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center volunteered for the job too.
Wondering how on earth this tradition got started? Us too.
Well, it goes back to 1992, when a Middlebury resident, Peter White, approached the Sheldon Museum to ask if he could build a train layout to exhibit and operate some antique Lionel toy trains.
“White assembled a group of toy train enthusiasts to construct the platforms and assemble the layout. They named themselves the Midd-Vermont Train Club,” explained the museum’s Associate Director Mary Manly. “The original members were Peter White; Ron Nimblett, Vergennes; Dana Myrick, Bridport; “T” Tall, Cornwall; and Bobby Andrews and Al Stiles from Middlebury. They were later joined by local architect Bob Rand who assisted with enlarging the ‘T’ Tall, one of the original engineers, is still volunteering with the layout installation and as an engineer, running the trains.”
Trains are fun, plain and simple.
And for Maier, they’re just as much fun now as they were when he was a boy.
“At the time, this was the engine that kids would kill to get,” Maier said, remembering when Lionel first came out with the Santa Fe. Holding up a picture of himself, sometime around second grade, he said, “When this train was built, this was engineer Larry.”
The Santa Fe cost $59.95 back then, which Maier said was about 1 percent of the value of their family house. Today, in mint condition with the original boxes, such a set could bring at least $1,500 at auction.
Maier didn’t get a Lionel train set, but his dad did get him a smaller one.
“As a result of playing with that train, I learned mechanics and basic electronics,” Maier said. “That’s what first got me into engineering.”
The New Jersey native continued on to study electrical engineering at Brown University in Rhode Island and was the chief engineer for the campus radio station. After a four-year stint in the coast guard, stationed in Wildwood, N.J., Maier moved up to Vergennes for a job at Simmonds Precision (which has undergone several ownership changes and now operates as UTC Aerospace Systems).
A new gondola at the Sheldon Museum’s train exhibit brings skiers and snowboarders up to the top of the mountain.
Independent photo/Elsie Lynn Parini
“I worked there for just shy of 40 years,” said Maier, who retired in 2013. “I can claim to be one of the few people who has actually worked on a spaceship that took off with people and returned… Let’s see, I’ve also worked on virtually all Boeings airplanes.”
But don’t go writing to Maier about the lousy foot-room just yet, he designed mechanical parts of the plane, he wasn’t in charge of seat design.
So after a full career in aerospace engineering, what keeps Maier’s attention? Trains; back to trains. Oh, and music; Maier has also been a musician since the fifth grade. He plays clarinet and soprano, alto and tenor saxophone with Midd Winds, the Bristol Band, LC Jazz and played in the pit for Vergennes Union High School’s recent production of “Anything Goes.”
“I started helping out at the Sheldon before I retired,” explained Maier, who now finally has his hands on a Lionel Santa Fe. He also helps with the Shelburne Museum’s trains, and does some work for Tony’s Trains Exchange in Essex Junction. “It looked like something fun to do.”
And it still is. Go see Maier and the team of engineers run the trains at the Sheldon this year. The trains are on display now and will run through Jan. 12, 2019, Tuesday-Friday, 1-4 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and Sundays, Dec. 3, 10, 17 and 23, 1-3 p.m.
For more info visit henrysheldonmuseum.org or call (802) 388-2117.

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