By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now
NEWTON—Bob Wambold’s police officer dad used to patrol at night, and one of the things he’d see at Christmastime was a Lionel model train display in a grocery storefront window.
The train ran all night.
“He had to get that for his boys,” Wambold said, sitting in his basement, where his large model train tracks and “town” are set up.
Wambold grew up with an older brother, and Wambold had a train set waiting for him even before he was born. His brother, who’s four years older, had his own.
It seems it was in their blood.
“There were trains in the house before I came along, really,” Wambold said.
Wambold, who’s from Pennsylvania, said that at the time, Lionel model trains were at the top of every boy’s dream list in the northeast.
Decades later, Wambold still has his yellow 1950 Lionel anniversary model.
During the holidays in Wambold’s youth, his father set the trains up on ping-pong tables at their home.
“Back then, a lot of people did that and some people still do,” Wambold said. “Around February, we’d have to take it down. Come Thanksgiving, it was fair game again.”
That’s how the Newton resident became interested in trains.
In his professional career, Wambold was involved in music, whether it was performing, teaching or delivering pianos. At the age of 36, he earned a degree in music education, deciding to finish his degree because the GI Bill was about to run out.
“I never worked for a railroad,” he said. “I wish I would’ve.”
One day as an adult, he decided he needed a hobby not related to music since he dealt with that day and night.
He asked his parents if they still had the trains from his childhood. He said they never gave him a straight answer, telling him they sold them years ago. He got into the hobby again as an adult in the 1980s.
“My parents came to visit us at Thanksgiving,” Wambold said. “My mom was a genius at packing things. She had the whole thing in their ’76 Chevy.”
That whole thing was his train, which they brought to him around 1986.
Now, much of his basement is decorated with prints of train paintings and other train-themed items, like buildings. One of the prints could be of Chicago and another is of Kansas City. Some of the buildings are made of cardboard from the 1940s. The company that made them, Skyline, later changed to plastic and then shut down.
The model trains Wambold has running are O scale, which is close to 1/48th the size of a real train. O gauge almost always means Lionel and toys to train guys, Wambold said.
He’s not really concerned with scale—he just likes having his toys.
“In fact, the more ridiculous it is, the more I like it,” he said.
Lionel has been around for a long time.
“Lionel’s been around uninterrupted since 1900,” Wambold said.
He even has a model of a Lionel factory along his train layout. Lionel started in New York City by Joshua Lionel Cowan.
“He had a store in Manhattan and he wanted to attract attention to his display window,” Wambold said. “He came up with a piece of track and put a car on it to run on his display and people kept coming in and buying it.”
At that time, trains weren’t the only things Cowan sold. He had electronic gadgets and toys. After finding out trains were so popular, he started concentrating on those.
In the Great Depression, Cowan made a handcar with Mickey Mouse on it.
“It made him a million,” Wambold said. “So during the Depression, he got to be a millionaire.”
The love of model trains started with Wambold’s dad, and now it’s trickled to Wambold’s grandkids, of which he has four.
“They’re nice enough when they come to visit, they ask Grandpa, ‘Can we see the trains?’,” Wambold said.
He had goals after retiring.
“I wanted to have a humungous train layout that would last me the rest of my days,” he said.
His current layout is the seventh or eighth one he’s done. Wambold said one of the most fun things for him is to start a layout from scratch.
He got his track layout tables from a local discount store. Every time Wambold went to Dillons or another store, he’d ask if he could buy some of their display tables. They informed him they don’t sell tables, but then at the discount store in Newton, he was told to talk to the woman in charge.
“She looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘That would be pretty neat,'” Wambold said.
She told him they had tables they planned to throw out, so if he could buy them at $5 apiece and write a check for the amount to the Ronald McDonald House, she could do that.
“I bought all that she’d sell me,” Wambold