A Popular Holiday Tradition Chugs Along
A young visitor is captivated by the “Old Wilton” display at the Wilton Historical Society’s Great Trains Holiday Exhibit, which attracts thousands of visitors.
Photo by Peggy Garbus
The train moves out of the Wilton station and travels past local landmarks: the Congregational Church, Orem’s Diner, and Keeler’s Market (now Caldwell Banker). No, this isn’t the Metro-North route between Danbury and Norwalk. It’s the famous model train set created by Bob King. It has become a fantasy trip for thousands of visitors to the annual Great Trains Holiday Exhibit at the Wilton Historical Society. (Nov 25 - Jan 16, 2017)
King was a local train hobbyist who spent countless hours constructing the $18,000 exhibit that has delighted families and inspired many kids to expand their knowledge of trains and their history. Dave Forslund is another founding father of the holiday exhibit, along with fellow train enthusiasts the late Herb Broome and David Poole.
“Herb and Dave were real railroad men. I mean they loved the real trains,” says Forslund. “I was more interested in the models. Back in 1998 Mary Lou Logan, who was the toy curator at the time, asked us to put together a train display, so we cobbled together an exhibit. Only two or three sets were really operating at first, and it was more about train memorabilia.”
The annual exhibit, which runs from early December through mid-January, was an instant hit, drawing people from miles around. As more displays were added and the crowds grew bigger, it quickly moved into the newly expanded exhibition gallery, although not everybody was happy recalls Forslund.
“One day a four-year-old boy walked in, looked around, shook his head and told his mother, ‘There’s nothing to do here,’ and walked out. So the next year we added switches and buttons and more blinking lights for the kids to activate. There were miniature Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and a Thomas the Tank Engine display. That’s when it really caught fire.”
“When I was younger, it was my favorite thing to do every winter. I really looked forward to it,” says Jack, a high-school senior who, like many kids, played with trains growing up. But he was also so enamored with the train display that he volunteered to help setup the trains and run the exhibit.
“As well as all the different trains themselves—which are really cool—the layouts and models that go into each display are amazing.”
As a community, Wilton has a long historical relationship with trains. The first tracks through town were laid in the 1850s when local resident, Charles Cannon (Cannondale), helped lead an effort to build the railroad through town, connecting what had then been a remote farming area to the rest of the civilized world—namely New Haven and New York City.
Grand Central Depot, as it was named then, opened in 1871, and one hundred years later in the 1960s and 70s that rail line helped Wiltonbecome a more populated community, as increasingly more commuters traveled by train to jobs in towns and cities along the I-95 corridor. Today, the Metro-North rail service still provides a vital link for residents who prefer the rails over the road. Clearly, though, there’s more love for the smaller versions of trains.
“There’s nothing better than seeing the eyes of a young kid—or those of their parents or grandparents—open wide when they see some of the elaborate layouts we have,” says Steve DesLoge, a more recent member of the exhibit team. “I’ve always loved model trains and became interested in the Historical Society a few years ago when I moved to Wilton.”
Historical Society executive director Leslie Nolan says the exhibit attracts thousands of visitors, “kids from 2 to 102,” and assures us that “the Great Train Exhibit will keep chugging along for many years to come.”
The annual Great Trains Holiday Exhibit at the Wilton Historical Society runs from Nov. 25, 2016 - Jan. 16, 2017