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Washington Model Railroad Club hosts 35th annual swap meet

GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske

Collectors brought houses, trains and outdoor accessories to decorate their villages with. They all met up at the 35th annual swap meet on Sunday, Sept. 30.
GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske Collectors brought houses, trains and outdoor accessories to decorate their villages with. They all met up at the 35th annual swap meet on Sunday, Sept. 30.
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Washington was whistling with excitement Sunday as model railroad enthusiasts from across the state came to trade, talk and show off their tracks, something that has been going on for 35 years.

The annual event was held in the KC Hall on Sunday, Sept. 30.

The swap meet has become a yearly tradition for the club, which began in 1970 when the hardware business was slowing during the winter months.

Earl Capps owned a hardware store on the east side of the square and wanted to get into the toy business because he thought it might help offset finances as people tended not to purchase hardware in the winter months. He then put out word that he was looking for people to bring trains for a display for the front window. As more people began bringing in trains, word began to spread and what started as a way to bring in publicity slowly turned into a club in 1973.

Over the next 20 years, the club moved to seven different locations. As more people joined the club, they gradually needed more space to set up their permanent track. In the early 1990s, Washington Model Railroad Club president Gene Carpenter approached the Washington County Fairgrounds about building a permanent residence for their club. They promised to have the building open during the fair for people to come in and explore, in addition to the time they get together and run their trains. “That’s been our home ever since and nobody can take it away from us,” he said.

Carpenter has been president of the club since 1992 but has been a model railroad enthusiast since 1970. While studying in the seminary, he was told by a professor to get a hobby to help get his mind off the stress of his job. He obliged and chose model railroads because it allowed him an opportunity to be creative and learn something entirely new. “I’ve created my own little world and that’s what it gives you the freedom to do,” he said.

Mike Worley, the club treasurer, has been a member since the club started. He said the club is important to him because he feels trains are something that will always be around and are something that played an important role in his past. “There are very few things that have been pulled from my past that are still relevant,” he said. He feels model trains are still one of them.

He says getting involved in model trains goes beyond playing with toys and teaches about geography, engineering and evolving technology. Members of the club have their own setup, but also include houses, cars, people and scenery to make the table as real-to-life as possible.

Pete Weller joined the club in the 1990s and every time he is around trains he feels like a kid in a candy store. Weller can name every train and track from across the state and parts of Illinois. His love for trains came to him at a young age as he grew up in Chicago.

“As a little kid, anything that rode on rails just fascinated me,” he said. Weller grew up wanting to be a streetcar operator but quickly shifted his dream as streetcars no longer became modes of transportation. Instead, he became a high school teacher and made it his goal and mission to interpret history and get people to understand it. He said this swap meet was not just about trading trains or meeting like-minded people, it was about appreciating the history of the railroad and passing it down to younger generations. “The railroad was everything, it was the window to the world,” he said. “It’s very important to know where we have been.”