Category Archives: Published

Model Trains Showcase the Best of Texas

2018-01-06 Train cover artA state the size of Texas is not only full of a rich history and a diverse culture, but it is also home to some of the most awe inspiring and picturesque natural landmarks in the country.  Presenting all these features to the viewing public is one of the primary missions for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a mandate the museum takes seriously, but one that David Temple, Associate Curator for Paleontology, believes can be fun as well.  The museum, which tries to design exhibits with a Texas theme, debuted a new feature last November for the holiday season called Trains over Texas, showcasing the best the state has to offer in 1/48th scale perspective using a traditional Christmas toy to do it.

2018-01-06 Train experience HLDSC_7163With landmarks such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, and Big Bend National Park highlighted alongside man-made features like the Alamo, the Tower of the Americas and the Houston Ship Channel, the state is well represented in the tennis-court-sized display nestled in the main hall in the museum’s exhibition center, right next to the video monitor where guests can see themselves walking among computer-generated dinosaurs before visiting the trains.  Kids are the main draw for the exhibit, which Temple says is as it should be.  “We have an educational mandate,” he said.  “We look for things that promote learning and hands-on activities.”  Carrying that mandate forward, Temple says the museum plans on expanding the display to include trains that guests can actually control.  The current setup is not designed with that level of interaction, but according to docent Carl Olsen, President of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Train Collectors Association, the kids have come in droves just the same.  Many local schools bring several classes of children to the museum on field trips throughout the week.  “We had roughly 2500 kids at one time,” he said of opening day. 2018-01-06 Train Pic 1

The exhibit is segmented into three primary sections with anywhere from five to six trains running in each section.  There are places where guests can crawl under the track and observe the train from inside the loop.  Two-year-old Conrad Kuhn was running around the display, the track at a perfect eye-level for the tow-headed youngster, as his mom, Amanda Kuhn of Pearland, watched.  “They love trains,” she said of her two sons. The Kuhns have attended the exhibit four times since its November opening.  In fact, the family became members of the museum because they love the trains so much. “They have a couple at home with wooden tracks they love to play with,” she added.  Conrad echoed his mom’s statement, saying that he loves choo choo trains, but adding that “Thomas is sick.”  The display has a hidden track that runs under the main display where Thomas, the Tank Engine, runs in a circle.  The area has a viewing window that kids can crawl under the display to see.  On this day, Conrad was distressed to find that Thomas was out for maintenance and a street car had taken his place on the track.

2018-01-06 Train track HL

The trains at HMNS are powered by six transformers to drive the eighteen trains running at any given time.  Keeping the system up requires regular maintenance.  Olsen and his crew of volunteers are members of fourteen train collecting clubs in the Houston Area. They volunteer their time by attending to the display, answering questions from the guests,  maintaining and repairing the trains and tracks to ensure the exhibit remains fully operational.

DSC_7270The Train Collectors Association members trained museum staffer David Herrada in the care and maintenance of the trains, a job Herrada takes very seriously.  Working in a cramped compartment behind the west Texas part of the diorama, Herrada meticulously cleans the wheels of the cars and replaces worn out components as they break.  “Lionel trains are durable, but where the average train set might run sixteen hours in a year, these trains run eight hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.  In order to prevent breakdowns, the trains run for three minutes and then stopped in place to cool down for a minute.  Herrada and the association volunteers do work hard to complete any needed repairs, but sometimes, as with poor Thomas, the damage may be too great. “If we can’t repair it, we have to send it back,” Herrada said.  The Trains are sent to Lionel or TX Trainworx for warranty work or replacement.  Fortunately, despite the amount of wear and tear, the trains keep running and they have only had to send about eight trains back over the course of the exhibit.   The entire display is O-scale, which is 1:48 size and according to Olsen, “…is a reliable scale that you have minimal problems with.”

Deciding on which of the several model scales to use was part of the development process that occurred over a two-year period.  The museum’s board of directors, responding to a request from a prominent museum patron—an avid train enthusiast named Glen Rosenbaum,—reached out to Dallas-based TW Trainworx, for help.  Rosenbaum had TW Trainworx build a large train display of his own at his home, but no where near the size of the Museum’s.  The Houston-based attorney describes himself as a bona-fide train nut who has enjoyed a lifelong passion for trains. “It’s very relaxing to watch these things lumber around the room.  I’m also fascinated by the power, the size, and the history.”

TW Trainworx owner Roger Farkash says his company caters to the train enthusiast from the individual hobbyist to large corporate clients like the Ronald McDonald house to build large scale models.  Displays like Trains Over Texas are a good way for people to enjoy model railroading, a hobby that is becoming expensive to enjoy at home.  Farkash said that the cost of train sets have risen dramatically since the hobby’s heyday in the sixties and seventies, when it was common to have a train set at home especially at Christmas.  Part of the rise in cost is because of new technologies that improve the user experience with sounds and smoke and digital controllers.  To have a layout with the level of detail that Trains over Texas features is not an inexpensive option.  Farkash said that the cost ranges from $250 to $300 per square foot and can go up into the thousands per square foot depending on the level of detail and technology of the models.  For those who do decide to have a display built, the main consideration is size.  “What they typically want to do is find the largest room that they can spare and fill the room.  There really isn’t an average size.  People want to fill the largest room they can afford.”

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Photo Nov 17, 10 35 15 AM

The Selection of the models and landmarks used in the museum’s exhibit was made by the board of directors.  The theme is based on Texas’ history with trains and how important they were in the expansion and development of the state over the years.  The sites selected for the display include any city that features a rail museum or historic train depot.  The Pecos River bridge features prominently in the display, spanning from one display to another over the entry into the museum’s giant Foucault pendulum, so visitors can walk under the bridge.  The Houston ship channel is up front and is one of the first aspects seen by visitors.  Interspersed between the town models are representations of natural features including the Chisos mountains of Big Bend, the Rio Grande and Enchanted Rock.  “The funny thing about models is you have to compress space,” Temple said.  “You almost have to present small little vignettes.  Capture the high points…or the flat points depending on the geography,” he added with a smile.  TW Trainworx built the exhibit using urethane foam and latex paint to form the mountains, and other synthetic materials for the grass, trees and gravel.  Farkash and his team worked hard to make the setup modular, so it could be taken apart and moved, but still look seamless.

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The modular design will be useful when the exhibit reopens in November, as the museum intends on expanding the feature for a larger display area.  The exhibit initially featured several large Christmas trees, in keeping with the tradition of trains at Christmas, but after the holidays, the trees were replaced with representations of Atlanta and Boston as well as Reliant stadium to commemorate Houston’s hosting Superbowl fifty-one. Temple says that this year’s exhibit will still have a Christmas theme, but probably without the large trees.  “They took up a lot of space that we can use for more models,” he said.  The exhibit will run every year from November to January, then it will be stored and redesigned for the next year. Admission to Trains over Texas is included in the price of the general admission to the museum.

 

This article appears in the December, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Where To Find West Texas Jewels

Forty miles southeast of Lubbock, Texas, at the intersection of Highways 84 and 380, on a small parcel of flat land, rests a little jewel of Texas history. The town owes its founding to a cereal magnate and its continued existence to the energy industry, but it has more going for it than the acrid smell of crude oil and rows upon rows of wind farms on the horizon. Most people driving down Highway 84 are coming from or going to Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, or on to Amarillo. But Post, Texas is still home to a number of die-hard West Texans who live and work in the 100-year-old town. Many of the residents have lived their entire lives there, while others left at some point to find their fortunes but ended up returning with a family. One unique sort of resident was discovered in Post but has now found a permanent home on display across the state in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This small, desert gem of a town offers a Texas-sized portion of history, culture, and art.

Garza County Museum

Linda Puckett’s husband’s family were long-time Post residents, so when she and her husband returned to Post in 1980, it was a homecoming of sorts. The Pucketts owned a trucking company at the time, but Linda quickly found her calling when the C.W. Post Historical Center needed help. In her role as director, Linda has overseen a mass expansion of the museum’s collection, including gathering items from local Post residents such as Alvin G. Davis, a renowned cowboy featured in a large room dedicated to his rodeo days and philanthropic activities. “He is the highest honored 4-H member to date. He’s quite a guy. He’s still living; we have a living legend.”

Building the collection has been a passion for Linda since she took over the museum in 1995, which meant a lot of work. “I’ve been here 22 years now. We started with three rooms and nothing and now we have a huge historical museum.” The museum is housed in the old Post Sanatorium, which served as the town hospital for a number of years. Next door is a building that served as a nursing school. “There really was nothing here; we’ve totally revamped the whole interior. Once [the residents] saw we were here to stay, they didn’t mind us having grandma’s stuff. We ended up with a lot of stuff, so now I have to be kind of selective.”

The town’s namesake, C.W. Post, is not underrepresented in the museum. Linda was quite happy when the Post estate called asking if she wanted the furniture from Post’s Battleground, Michigan office. The chairs and desk had been stored at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. at Post’s daughter’s home, but the agent in charge of the display needed the space, so he thought of Linda. She has established a relationship with the estate over the years and now proudly displays artifacts from Post’s office. There is so much in the museum that Linda is planning on a massive expansion in the near future which may include building an annex to the museum dedicated to Post. “We’re running out of room inside. We have Mr. Post’s stuff in the hallway.”

OS Museum

C.W. Post built the town after obtaining the land from several ranchers; one of them was Wilson Connell, who sold Post 27,000 of his 160,000 acres and left the rest of his land to his family. Among those sections of land was the OS Ranch, named for Overall and Street, the original land owners and founders of the ranch who sold to Connell back in the 1800s.

In the building Post built on Main Street in 1911 as an office for his land and cattle company, the OS Museum now resides, independently owned and operated by the descendants of Connell. While the Garza County Museum features artifacts from residents of Post, the OS Museum features collections from around the world and has little to do with the town’s history other than its location. The late Giles McCrary, grandson of William Connell, started the museum to feature artifacts and artwork collected by the family as they traveled over the years. Christie Morris, assistant curator, explained that McCrary wanted to provide access to art that most people will not get a chance to experience. The museum rotates themed displays that change at Easter, summer, and Christmas. One of the most significant additions to the collection are the assortment of the famed Fabergé Eggs. “Mr. McCrary set the whole thing up as a nonprofit. The family doesn’t charge anything for it; we just want to make these things available to the people who live in the area and the people who come through.”

Those people include the residents as well as visitors. “We have people from literally all over the world. We have a lot of people passing through; a lot of people will stop to maybe see something downtown. All Post’s merchants are really good about promoting one another. A lot of times someone will come up and say that ‘I was down in so-in-so shop and they said I had to come see this.’ We get a lot of people from Tech as parents are driving through and they’ll stop and sometimes bring people back and they’ll stop in and see us.”

Postosuchus

One resident of the Post area that brings people to town moved away and will probably never return, although he takes with him an indelible part of the town. He is named for Post, Texas, as his formal name is Postosuchus Kirkpatriki, but he is more commonly called Postosuchus. The large animal lived in Post in the late Triassic era and David Temple, Assistant Director of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is quick to point out that Postosuchus is not a dinosaur, he is a reptile. “This is really before the dinosaurs came along and you have these things which are essentially reptiles. Dinosaurs appear at the end of the Triassic and into the Jurassic.”

Researchers still visit the Post excavation from time to time for more study. The skeleton on display in Houston is not as large as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but is similar in size to a Velociraptor. Researchers from nearby Texas Tech who regularly visit the dig site posit that Postosuchus may have been able to walk on his hind legs, but was probably a quadraped, according to studies of his skeleton. Temple said that the research was conducted using pieces of different specimens. Scientists unfortunately did not find an entire intact skeleton, but did find enough to identify Postosuchus, despite return trips to the excavation.

“We’ve been out there twice. We spent two or three days straight, ten hours a day and we didn’t really find much of anything. When you find stuff, it’s where you find it but its not everywhere. It’s kind of spotty.”

This little stretch of Highway 84 sees more traffic than one might expect from this West Texas area outside of Lubbock. Between scientists, residents, visitors, and Red Raiders driving to and from Texas Tech, the town gets a notable amount of visitors. Linda Puckett enjoys being on the route in and out of town. “We are the last stop before the interstate. We’re a good pit stop.”

So whether you find yourself traveling through the area and need a place to rest or looking for an out-of-theordinary day trip for the family, Post has plenty to offer. And if you visit on a Saturday, Puckett suggests visiting the Ragtown Gospel Theater, just north of town, for a matinée.

 

This article appears in the October, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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