Before he could even walk, Al Zollers loved trains. Watching them wind around the track, toot their horns, chug along and do it again.
“My father bought me a Lionel train – I think he bought it for himself - when I was not even a year old,” said Zollers, of Hatboro, with a laugh. “That’s how I started. At less than a year old I certainly couldn’t operate or anything. I just loved to watch the train go around.”
As Zollers grew, so did his train collection, and, eventually, his family’s shared love of the hobby. Now a grandfather, Zollers no longer simply watches the trains as they make their way around the track. Instead, his artistic flair has taken flight in the cardboard communities that he spends countless hours constructing, painting, lighting and fitting together.
“The trains fit right into it,” Zollers said. “You create a scene and it’s 3-D art.”
Some of Zollers’ art – and the accompanying train cars and tracks – will be on display during Saturday’s sixth annual Model Train Show. A convention of train enthusiasts showing and selling their wares and bonding over their love of a bygone era, founder and organizer Al Wipplinger said the show typically draws 800 people.
But, he expects that the best is yet to come.
“We have the best response we’ve had in six years,” Wipplinger said while manning the cash register at his store, Village Hardware, which also doubles as a local spot to buy trains.
Wipplinger said 65 vendors are participating in Saturday’s show, which, in addition to providing a “nostalgia trip” for people like Zollers, serves as a fundraiser for the Hatboro Main Street program. Wipplinger started the show to raise funds to help beautify the borough and each year strives to raise $4,000 in proceeds - $3,000 for Main Street and another $1,000 to fund the following year’s train show.
But, where it all began for Wipplinger is a story similar to that of Zollers.
“I’m a big kid at heart,” Wipplinger said. “In 1962 my first son was born. I said, ‘I had trains, my little boy’s going to have trains.’ ”
Now, some of those trains cover a room in his home from ceiling to floor, beckoning a new generation.
“My grandkids are nuts over the trains,” Wipplinger said. “Part of the fun in collecting is operating.”
But, what about the train collector who has it all? Zollers said that person may not exist.
“A real train nut never has everything that he or she wants,” Zollers said of his love, which he likened to the “world’s greatest hobby.” “There is always the possibility of finding something you’ve been looking for.”
And that something could make its way onto an avid collector’s track, just as it did when Zollers was a baby – with one exception.
“We don’t play with trains, we operate railroads,” Zollers said. “Kids play with trains.”