What kind of trains do you run?
The majority of trains that run on the display are “O Gauge” trains, but we also have some HO Gauge and one N Gauge train as well. We run Lionel, Mike’s Train House (MTH) and K-Line. We use Gargraves track.
Are there still parts of the current display that go back to the beginning?
Yes, there actually are quite a few original pieces and animations still on the display today. They include the ski slope, ski lodge and ice skaters, Dutch Haven, the Willows, the 2-lane moving highway (in front of Dutch Haven), the farm with the tobacco barn, the Strasburg Fire House, the church beside Dutch Haven and a few other houses. Actually, the church beside Dutch Haven was part of the Groff family’s layout in the late 1940s and is modeled after the First Presbyterian Church in Strasburg, two blocks away from the Groff family home. The farm house with the tobacco barn is actually two of George’s original layout buildings put together to make a larger farm house. The house is built from sheets of ¼” balsa wood, the windows are real glass and the curtains are made from the bottom of his wife, Florence’s slip. That’s what we call “ingenuity”.
How do the animations work?
Most animations work using the same principle of how a piston in a car’s engine works. A motor turns an arm on which a rod is loosely fastened. As the arm turns around, it pulls and pushes the rod back and forth. The Amishmen sawing use this principle, as do bulldozers, rollers, graders, and the like. There are many more complicated animations on the display that use chain drives, industrial slide rails, gears, pulleys, micro switches, relays and timers.
Are the wires and motors under the layout labeled as to what or where they belong to? Or do you just know them from memory?
I (Tom) have a book that lists every animation which is given a number, what relay box it is connected in, what size fuse it uses and even which cable number and wire color is used up in the control booth. There’s also a list of all the switches on the control panel, their position on the panel and what it operates. I put all this info into an Excel spreadsheet so I can sort by animation name in alphabetic order, by relay box and relay order and even by cable number and wire color. That comes in handy when an animation isn’t working. Low voltage is a whole other story. If I want to know where a relay board gets its power from, I start at the board and trace the wire by hand. To rewire all the low voltage which would include train power and controls, house lights and car lights, I’d need to spend a couple of months.
Do you ever rotate out or retire your animations? What type of maintaince do they require through out the year?
Sometimes animations wear out and have to be completely re-built from scratch. I don’t rotate them out because we’re always getting new visitors that have never seen them; I just try to add new animations every year. Animations sometimes need new motors which we have in stock. Sometimes a linkage will wear out and most times they can be repaired as well but sometimes, as with the “up” escalator, the plug is pulled and it waits until winter to repair it.
Do you have many backup locomotives?
Every engine has a back up. When an engine starts to have problems, it is replaced and then we work on the problem which could be anything from worn roller pick-ups, to worn gears to a bad motor. While the engine is apart, it is lubed and oiled and put on the shelf until the other one needs work. The rolling stock usually gets oiled at the beginning of the season. A light touch of oil on the pin-point bearing is usually all that’s needed. During the year, we’ve have wheels wear out and couplers break which means a trip to the shop and a quick repair made.
How does the fire scene work?
The fire scene, which I completely redesigned and upgraded in 2000, uses a very complex series of animations and timers to achieve the effects you see. Eight motors, five timer boards, a number of limit switches, gears, chain, sprockets, lots of brass and aluminum strip stock and hundreds of hours of design work and fabrication goes into a project such as this.
How can I build water falls and streams without leakage?
We use an epoxy called PC7 (which can be found in our local hardware stores) over plaster and window screen. The window screen is used to make the basic shape of the stream or pond and the plaster gives the epoxy something to bond to. Ponds and lakes can be made using the same epoxy and then painted with Floquil paints for the desired effect.
I would like to get some cornfields in O Gauge for my layout. Where can I buy them?
Great question! I have been looking for quite a few years for the proper material to make standing corn and finally found great corn stalks! We sell them on our model railroading website, etrainshop.com. You can purchase them here.
Can you recommend a good book about the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad?
The only book we have dealing specifically with the history of the PRR is “The Pennsylvania Railroad: It’s Place In History 1846-1996″. This softcover book is a brief history and research guide, and sells for $14.95.
Is there a better day of the week to visit the Choo Choo Barn?
We have found that Monday and Friday are the least crowded days of the week, so if your schedule allows, you might consider visiting those days.
Can I bring my camera and take pictures of the display at the Choo Choo Barn?
Yes, please! You are more than welcome to bring your cameras (photo and video), and take all the pictures you wish. Be sure to get extra prints, and share them with all your friends as well!
Why is the Choo Choo Barn display closed from January through March?
We close for about 2 1/2 months every year in order to completely clean the display, repair any broken parts, and add new features. Many people don’t know, but we add several new features, animations, or complete scenes each year. One year, we added seven new scenes to the display! Part of the fun of returning year after year is finding the new features on the display! Keep an eye on our winter renovations by visiting our YouTube channel or our public Facebook page!
How does the flag blow?
This is THE most asked question about the Choo Choo Barn display and is actually one of the easiest animations to make. The flag pole is actually a series of telescoping brass tubes. The bottom of the tube goes through a hole that is in the layout where the hose from an air compressor is attached to. The top of the flag pole is stopped up with a flag pole adornment and there is one hole, mid-point on the flag, drilled into the pole. The air is forced out of this hole and makes the flag fly. The real “catch” is that the air compressor uses a ¼ horse power motor, the largest motor used on the display, to run the compressor.
Do you have any funny stories about the Choo Choo Barn?
When our layout was in our basement, prior to the birth of the Choo Choo Barn, all of the scenery was made using paper mache, the only economical choice for landscaping at that time. One year, my dad was planning a fairly large renovation of our train display and he knew he had to make a huge batch of paper mache to cover the new mountains and terrain he was planning to build. My dad, being the resourceful man that he was, spied my mother’s wringer washer in the corner of the basement, a beacon of light shining on it like a vision from above. Unbeknownst to my mother, dad pulled her washer from its normal resting place and rolled it over to the model railroad layout. We spent the next couple of hours laboring over batch after batch of the paper, water, flour and whatever else goes into the mixture, spreading it all over the screen hillside he had formed earlier. When our job was finished making and forming the beautiful hillsides and landscapes and we started to clean up, dad looked inside mom’s washer and discovered that all the 1950s newsprint had come off the newspaper he had used in the manufacture of his molding media and had adhered itself not only ON the porcelain but also IN the porcelain. Mom’s Kelvinator washer was ruined, never to see another stitch of clothing again. Needless to say, dad’s idea of making “cheap” landscaping turned into a very costly affair, mom ended up with a brand new washing machine!
And one more…
We have always prided ourselves with our attention to detail, especially since I took the reigns and have been become the artistic drive behind the display. I have taken the layout from a train display to a work of art, having spent hour upon hour perfecting the art of making scenery and model construction. In 2006, DIY Network spent several days video taping every aspect of the display for a segment to be aired on “Workin’ On the Railroad”, a show hosted by the late Chris Chianelli and devoted to the hobby of model railroading. At the end of the segment, Chris said that the display at the Choo Choo Barn was “truly a work of art”. Up until that time, I never really thought of myself as an artist, just a guy that liked to work with his hands and enjoyed building and creating a display to entertain visitors. That was a real turning point in my perception of what I do and why I do it. That was the start of marketing the artistic aspect of the display, that this was no ordinary model railroad layout with a bunch of trains running around on a couple of sheets of plywood. We now say “Expanding the Artistry of Model Railroading” in a number of our advertising and marketing ventures. Model railroading is a rich and rewarding hobby that can teach many different trades and crafts to those willing to learn. My artistry or possibly the realistic photography that we use in our advertising has been proven to be quite confusing to a few people. We had a customer ask the whereabouts of the zoo that their children can visit that we advertise. I told the person that we don’t have a zoo with live animals and got a “Oh yes you do!” right back. I explained that I’ve been here since 1961 and that she was surely mistaken and she must have us confused with ZooAmerica in Hershey somehow. With that, the lady pulled one of our brochures from her purse and shoved it in my face and asking if this is where she was at. I assured her that she was definitely at the right place but that the animals pictured were in the building behind me. I went on to explain, hard as it was, that the zoo that is pictured is on a display and that the animals are only a few inches tall, showing the size with my outstretched fingers. It took a while to convince her that our brochure did not picture a real zoo with real animals but a miniature version of a zoo on a 1700 square foot hand-made display. A surprised look finally came over her face, along with a flushed face and she proceeded to tell me that the picture is too realistic and that we should caption it with some sort of disclaimer, thereby telling people that this is not the real thing. We thought we did this in the copy of the brochure, but we revamped things with our next printing. It also made us step back and re-evaluate an aspect of the display that we’ve been missing for many years. The display is a work of art!