At Christmastime, Santa Claus gets all kinds of requests - from dump trucks to Barbie dolls to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But no matter what the must-buy toy of the season is, there’s one that always embodies the epitome of the holiday season.
“Christmas is when all of America are model railroaders, they just don’t know they are,” said Michelle Kempema, executive director of the Colorado Model Railroad Museum. “Trains and Christmas -- we put them under our trees. We see them when we go to the malls. We go, and we look at train layouts in store windows. It’s a joy for us.”
Admittedly, Kempema is a little biased being that she runs what is touted as the largest model railroad museum in the country. The museum, located just off a set of real railroad tracks in Greeley, features more than 80 scale miles of track and 5,500 square feet of scenery, including a new Department 56 Heritage Christmas collection donated to the museum this year.
Last January, Kempema got a call from Bob and Marilyn Harris of Lincoln, Nebraska. They wanted to find out more about the museum as they had a collection they were looking to donate.
“They asked me questions for a good hour -- about our future plans and our mission and our dreams,” she said. “And at the end, Bob looked at his wife and said, ‘I think we’re home.’”
It was at that point that Kempema found out exactly what the couple were donating -- every single piece created for the collection since it began in 1984. That includes 1,300 houses and about 4,000 accessories, including items like figures, trees and lampposts.
Kempema declined to note the exact value of the collection but said it’s “in the high six figures.”
The Christmas in the City scene currently on display is only 1 percent of the donation.
It features an idyllic 1940s New York City during the holidays, including Radio City Music Hall -- complete with the Rockettes right in front doing a kick line, the ball at the top of One Times Square awaiting its New Year’s Eve drop and ice skaters skating around a pond in Central Park. Running through it all is a Santa’s Polar Express.
The dazzling display caught the attention of 3-year-old cousins Andrew Milton and Jonathan Geib. Eyes wide, the two followed the train as it went in and out of the tunnel.
It wasn’t their first time at the museum, said mom Nikki Geib, of Eaton. Her son, Jonathan, loves trains and has many of them at home.
“There are so many trains,” Geib said. “And when you step on trains -- they hurt!”
But she might need to get used to them. According to the museum’s volunteers, most of whom are longtime train aficionados, that sense of wonder never really goes away.
Bill Botkin started volunteering at the museum 10 years ago, but his love for trains has been a lifetime in the making.
“I started being interested in trains when I was about 3 years old,” Botkin said. “Back when I grew up in the early 1950s, it was a pretty normal thing for a father to take the kids down and watch trains.”
Watching trains soon lead to an interest in collecting model trains, he said. For more than 40 years, Botkin has also photographed them.
“I’ve been to about 30 countries,” he said. “Everywhere from South Africa to China, Middle East, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey … preferably photographing steam engines, which (went) out of existence in the United States in about 1960, but they lasted in some places like China until about 2004.”
Botkin helps at the museum often, driving up from his home in Centennial, Colorado. But among the volunteers his commute isn’t even close to the longest. That claim to fame belongs to Steve Watrous, who lives in Johnston, Iowa.
The retired 68-year-old makes the 1,300-mile round trip from the Des Moines suburb every other month.
Trains are about nostalgia, he said. His mother’s family worked for the Union Pacific Railroad out of North Platte, Nebraska. Watrous said he remembers riding on the mail trains and watching the steam engines.
“And when you’re 4, 5, 6, 7 years old and watch those big, black monsters go by puffing smoke and steam and shaking the ground,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m a guy. I was hooked.”
As for the rest of the world’s more seasonal affection for trains.
“How do I explain it,” Watrous wondered aloud. “You want to go back when everyone traveled by train. Before the airplanes, it was the most popular way to get to go see relatives at Christmas. And there’s just something about snow, winter, gathering … it’s all about Christmas. For me, it’s year-round.”