By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
For McWane Science Center visitors, the Magic of Model Trains exhibit is a highly anticipated display many look forward to seeing downtown Birmingham in November and December.
For the Wrecking Crew Model Railroad Club—a group of train enthusiasts that not only design and build the trains but also set up the exhibit and visit once everything is up and running—the annual exhibit is a year-round labor of love.
Magic of Model Trains began on November 23 and runs through the beginning of January.
Wrecking Crew President Whit Fancher said the club’s 23 to 25 members work on sets for the exhibit throughout the year; it takes about 40 to 50 hours just to assemble, and that doesn’t include all of the other effort.
“It takes a lot of man hours just to work the bugs out and get everything up and going, so in total it probably takes about 100 hours to get … ready to go for the big layout, in addition to four or five hours by 15 or 20 people [at the McWane Center],” said Fancher. “There’s no telling how many tens of thousands of hours it takes to build the set over a period of time.”
That period of time dates back to 1989, when the Wrecking Crew was founded. The club has put together the Magic of Model Train exhibit at the McWane Center for the past 14 years.
In 2009, the Wrecking Crew Inc. obtained 501(c)3 nonprofit status with McWane for the educational purposes of teaching center members and the public about railroads and how to model them.
“We give classes on everything from how we run it to the electronics we use. By the way, every locomotive now has a computer chip in it with a sound system,” said Wrecking Crew member Larry Smith.
Fancher said a lot of the handcrafted layouts have gone through some variations “and will continue to do so because we try to change things up every year just to keep it interesting. It’s a lot of fun.”
Each Wrecking Crew member has a job to do.
“Some people like doing the scenery, such as putting down the grass and building the trees. Some people like doing the cars and rolling stock. … Some people like to do the buildings or interior of the buildings. … Different people are working in different sections,” Fancher said. “There’s so much to do. … No one person has done one module. It’s a group effort.”
All the hard work throughout the year pays off once the exhibit is up and running, said Fancher: “It’s a blast meeting people, talking about this thing, and watching the kids’ eyes buzz open with awe.”
“There are lots of aha moments, but [it’s great to] watch the little kids and how their eyes light up when they see the trains, and even the adults. [It’s great to] watch the moms and dads and listen to their stories: ‘I had one of those when I was a kid’ or ‘let me tell you about this.’ It’s really great to bring that emotion out of people. It’s been a success, and we often see the same people over and over again.”
The Wrecking Crew Model Railroad Club is based at the McWane Center.
“[The group meets] here every Monday all year round to build model trains and sets, … then they help us put on our model train exhibit every year during the holidays,” said Amy Templeton, who has been president and CEO of the McWane Center since 2012.
The model train exhibit started as a way to provide space for the Wrecking Crew, but the club wanted to do something special for McWane visitors, too, Templeton said.
“We provide them with the workshop spaces, and they come here, … build trains, … and enjoy each other’s company. Then when the holidays come, they set up and help us plan the exhibit with the trains and sets they’ve been making all year,” she said.
The trains change from year to year, but sometimes they stay the same. The club has made so many trains and sets that they’ve put together a nice inventory.
“They’ve built enough now that there’s an inventory of model trains, but there are certain ones that are always in the exhibit. They are constantly making new scenes, and some years we may put one out and another one will stay in storage,” said Templeton.
“We frequently put out a Hogwarts [School of Witchcraft and Wizardry set, modeled on the school in the Harry Potter series]. Everyone loves that train. We try to make sure the trains are at eye level for kids. If they are not, we have little step stools so the kids can get up close and really appreciate the intricacy of the scenes.”