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Holiday traditions in Ligonier keep childhood memories on track

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Bill Pribisco | for the Ligonier Echo
Mary Lou Fleming owner of Martin's Speciality Shop checks the control for the train in the display window.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Richard Sheats' train set is decked out for the holidays in his home on December 9, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Rchard Sheats' train set is decked out for the holidays in his home on December 9, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Richard Sheats demonstrates his train set which is decked out for the holidays in his home on December 9, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Richard Sheats' train set is decked out for the holidays in his home on December 9, 2013.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Richard Sheats' holiday train set collection includes scenes from 'A Christmas Story'.

The sound of a toy train making its way around the track under a Christmas tree brings back memories of a simpler time.

In the early 1950s and 1960s, a train around the tree was considered by some to be as important as the star or angel on top the tree.

The first toy trains were made in Germany in the mid-1800s. The trains were made of tin or lead and had to be pushed or pulled by hand. By 1884, standard or garden (G-gauge) electric trains were invented in Europe and soon after were manufactured in the U.S. with Lionel and American Flyer leading the way in popularity.

In the early 1980s, Phil and Mary Lou Fleming, owners of Martin's Specialty Shop, put a train in the window of the family's shop on the Ligonier Diamond.

“Trains always played a part of my Christmas celebration,” said Phil Fleming. “Mary Lou was at first reluctant to do so because we did not sell trains.”

The first train was a 1960s Lionel train from Fleming's own childhood collection. It had the old-style 1800s engine with a flat car, box car and passenger cars, he recalled.

The next year, Fleming purchased a newer production of the same old-style engine patterned after the Disney World train.

Fleming said he decorated the cars and scenery to depict Ligonier with mini-packages and a Santa figure.

“Somewhere along the line, I decided it would be nice if it was larger and switched to a G-gauge train manufactured by Lehmann Gross Bahn — the ‘Lehmann Big Railway.' “It was bigger and it move slower. It was more dependable and would stay on the tracks,” said Fleming. “It was a true toy train, very colorful. The kids gravitate to them.”

Fleming said about that same time, Thomas the Tank engine was gaining popularity and was in the same scale.

Thomas the Tank Engine is more than 60 years old, It was originated in England in 1945 when the Rev. W. Awdry wrote the first book in the Railway Series about the engine and his friends on the Island of Sodor.

Since that time, Fleming said he has displayed a combination of the LGB cars with the Thomas the Tank Engine theme.

“The first year I did Thomas, I actually made the engine from a Thomas the Tank whistle,” said Fleming.

He said he cut it apart and used the body for an engine on an old train motor. His version of the train was missing a set of wheels, however.

“The kids noticed it was different that the real Thomas, it did not have three wheels on each side,” said Fleming.

The train in Martin's window has remained the same ever since. Fleming said he did change out the caboose after purchased one with a holiday greeting on it on eBay.

“I enjoyed and still enjoy collecting trains,” he said.“It is neat to watch the kids' faces when they come up. When they can participate by pushing a button to make it operate, makes it so special.”

“It has been in the window long enough to have a second generation of children have the opportunity to see it.”

The train is set up during the week of Thanksgiving. Fleming said from the beginning, he engineered it so children could operate the train from outside the store window.

Fleming said one year when he was setting up the train after hours and working on the electrical connections and transfer relays in the basement, he heard someone outside. It was apparently a grandmother and her young grandson.

“I heard him say, ‘Oh grandma, he's here. Thomas is here.' It made my week,” said Fleming.

Some train hobbyist, like Dick Sheats of Ligonier, has expanded his passion for model trains in to a full-time project after he retired in 2000 and moved to Ligonier with his wife, Carol.

Sheats, who is also a member of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association, dedicated the basement of his home to a display of more than 20 sets of trains and scenery-filled platforms, leaving little space for anything more in the room. He runs four trains and a trolley on the main layout and has a separate display for his collection of Ligonier Valley Rail Road cars.

“Every Christmas, when he was a child, he would go to see the train display at Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh,” said Carol Sheats. “We took our son to see the display at Christmas, too.”

Although his son and family live in New Mexico now, his two young grandsons, Zachary, 6, and Alexander, 4, spend time with their grandfather in the train room when they come to visit.

“They are just getting old enough now to start enjoying the trains,” said Sheats.

The couple sent Zachary a train set for Christmas this year.

“When he was here in the summer, he drew a picture of what he wanted for Christmas, a Sante Fe Super Chief train,” Carol Sheats said. “Then he cuddled up to his grandpa and said ‘This is what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas.' ”

In his collection, Sheats has two original trains from his childhood, a 1956 Milwaukee Road train set he received from Santa at the age of eight and a 1960 Texas Special that he saved up his Christmas money to purchase.

“I remember having a tin lithographed Marx Toys train under our Christmas tree.”

This year, Sheats has that same model train circling his Christmas tree, one he purchased at an estate auction.

“It was the same one I had as a 3-year-old boy,” he said.

Sheats recommend parents of younger children to start out with a Thomas the Tank or Chugginton train set. An O-scale is a good size. It is easier to put on the tracks.

“The thing about collecting trains is, it can lead to other things in your life,” he said. “The skills I learned through my lifelong hobby led me on a career path.”

Sheats served in the U.S. Navy as an electrical technician and retired from Sunoco after 20 years as an electrical engineer.”

Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or dbrehun@tribweb.com.