Pick of the Week

Railways in the Garden

More than 60 years ago in Northern Ohio, Bob Dirksen's ears perked up when he heard a familiar sound rumbling through his town. The gentle thunder was not from the sky, but from trains on the ground.

"I always liked trains. There were two railroads going through the town. I liked to hear the trains going through. It was during World War II, so it was very busy at that time."

Dirksen eventually moved to Colorado, where he was a social-studies teacher and school librarian. While his interest in trains continued, he didn't have a lot of time for his hobby until after he retired. He moved to Tucson in 1991 and became involved in the Tucson Garden Railway Society about 10 years ago.

Dirksen, a previous vice president and board member of the society, says it's a club of 100 families who enjoy garden railroading. The group sets up displays at various locations around town throughout the year.

"We take displays out to basically anyone who asks. Between Christmas and New Year's, we set up at the (Veterans Affairs) Hospital. On Jan. 5, we will be at the Arizona State Home Show at the Tucson Convention Center. And we go to the county fair for 10 days."

Currently, the Tucson Botanical Gardens is partnering with the Tucson Garden Railway Society to present The Garden's Railway Exhibit through Sunday, Dec. 31. The trains run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily. The Botanical Gardens are located at 2150 N. Alvernon Way. The train exhibit is free with admission: $5 for adults; $2.50 for children ages 6 to 12; free for children 5 and younger. Call the Botanical Gardens at 326-9686 or visit www.tucsonbotanical.org and www.tucsongrs.org for more information.

Dirksen says there are two displays at the gardens. "In the Bird Garden, there are two loops--a figure eight with a trestle. There is a small village in it and a tunnel. It goes around bushes and trees. It's a very nice-looking (display), a very pleasant one." It contains 200 feet of track.

"In the Iris Garden, there is a fun display (containing 100 feet of track) with Santa's workshop in it. We are not all serious about this. We have had Thomas the Tank (Engine), clowns, cartoon figures, Winnie the Pooh. We're all little kids at heart."

While one might need to be young at heart to enjoy the displays, they take careful planning and adult know-how to put together.

"There are computer programs that will draw it out for you. But for the gardens, we had to go and look at the situation. There are trees and plants, so you have to fit the railroad to the area that you have.

"Usually, you start off with a clean slate, like in your backyard. You plan the railroad and the various plantings that you have. Because of the fact that it includes models and plans, it's often a family project."

It was Dirksen's wife who encouraged him to build his display in their backyard. "I had a small-gage train I wanted to (set up in the closet). My wife told me to go outside and play."

These days, Dirksen's wife is involved in his hobby and enjoys setting up the figures and buildings in displays. "Contrary to popular belief, women do like trains," he says. "There are a lot of couples where the men and women participate equally."

Dirksen says about 70 percent of the society's members have railroads in their backyards. Sizes vary; one member has about 1,000 feet of track. The displays stay out year-round, with many members only bringing their trains inside for safekeeping.

"This is a family activity. It's more so than an indoor hobby where dad goes down to the basement. But outside, you have things that can happen to your railroad--the effects of sun, rain, wind and animals. The sun is hard on the buildings. Plastic warps and gets brittle. And a pack rat can walk off with your figures."

Pack rats aside, Dirksen says he enjoys his hobby for three main reasons. "First, it keeps us off the streets and out of bars. It gives us something to do. Second, it keeps our creative juices flowing. I might see a birdhouse (at a craft store) and wonder how I can make that into a building."

The third reason Dirksen loves his hobby is that he enjoys being with people and delights in the reaction he sees from others.

"Once, a few years ago at the Botanical Gardens, a young mother would bring down her son. He was 3 years old. She would bring a book and lunch with her. She'd sit on a bench, and that little boy would watch the trains from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. He would cry when we took the trains in. He was just fascinated with them."

Dirksen calls this the "gee-whiz factor. When we have a set up, people will come through and say, 'Gee whiz. Look at that!' There is a certain amount of pride in that. It makes you feel kind of good."