VERNON TOWNSHIP — Whether you love the sound of a train whistle or the click-clack of the cars traveling over miniature tracks, your chance to take in some model train displays created by some major train enthusiasts is here.
The French Creek Valley Railroad Historical Society's model railroad layout opened to viewers on Friday. The displays are set up in the former Kmart building in the plaza next to the One Vernon Place facility on Conneaut Lake Road in Vernon Township.
Just a few hours after opening the doors on Friday, Railroad Society board member John Snyder said club members were pleased with the turnout.
“It’s a much better showing already than last year,” he said.
The success came despite some initial skepticism about setting up in the old Kmart on the part of the group’s board members.
“We were almost going to vote this down and not display it this year,” board member Stan Niwa said.
Just a few hours into this year’s display, it was clear that taking advantage of the vacant Kmart was a hit with visitors of all ages.
“I think it’s cool because they’re moving,” 8-year-old Riley Gibbons said as she watched a “Polar Express”-themed train circling one of two satellite displays that were erected this year since the society had so much more space than in recent years.
Gibbons was joined at the event by two younger cousins who followed her from one display to the next as well as by her grandparents and great-grandparents.
“We babysit them every year on this day,” said Melody Gibbons, the cousins’ grandmother. Getting the multi-generational group going after they had all gorged themselves on turkey the previous day had taken a while, she said, but the effort had been worth it.
The preparations that made it possible had begun earlier in the week with hours of set up, as well as a few frantic minutes searching for light switches in the large and unfamiliar location. Snyder and fellow Railroad Society member Carl Timko were among a group setting up model train displays complete with miniature villages and inhabitants. Snyder said some wives of society members added some of the "special touches" to the villages. Snyder announced proudly that his wife had created the buildings that are part of the "Polar Express" display.
Those visiting the display can see the intricate detail of various shops, including a Schwebel's Bakery and a gazebo.
This year is the first, and possibly last, time the displays will be at the former Kmart building, according to Timko.
"Our usual location had been in the Downtown Mall in Meadville, but all space in the mall was booked through the holidays," he said. "Thanks to the good will of Meadville Medical Center we got a space to put up our displays."
MMC purchased the property that houses the Kmart building in 2009 with a goal of having facilities and services that surpass those in larger metropolitan areas.
The Vernon Place facility opened in 2016. MMC officials told the Tribune at the time Kmart closed that the next phase of development of the property would begin within the next 18 to 24 months.
While he had no official confirmation, Timko surmised the Kmart building may not be around to house the display next year.
Both Timko and Snyder were grateful to have a space for the displays not only as a way to share their enthusiasm for model trains but to also raise funds to benefit several projects. "We're raffling off a train set to raise money for Toys for Tots," Snyder said. "We're also raising funds to bring a special train car to town."
A double-track snowplow was donated to the society and the group is currently raising funds to transport the plow to Meadville with plans to have it join a vintage train car and other equipment located next to Seco/Warwick Corp. in Meadville, according to Snyder.
The 45-ton double track snowplow was built in 1945 by Russell Snowplow and Car Co. of Ridgway, according to Snyder. It was donated to the society by Growth Resources of Wellsboro, which used it on its Wellsboro & Corning Railroad.
In addition to the train displays, various model-train related items will be for sale during the time that displays are open to the public, according to Snyder.
The displays will be open on Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The last day to view the displays is Saturday, Dec. 23.
Donations to the FCVRRHS can be made online at fcvrrhs.org or by mail to FCVRRHS, P.O. Box 632, Meadville, Pa. 16335.
Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com. Mike Crowley also contributed to this story.