Connellsville area hobbyist Joe Turek has collected model trains for nearly 70 years

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 5:49 p.m.

Joe Turek is on track to celebrate a century of model trains.

The Connellsville area hobbyist has engines, train cars and cabooses dating back to the 1920s and increases his collection every year.

He has plenty of time to shop around these days. The former Intermediate Unit I school psychologist is retired and enjoying every minute of it, especially when he coaches the boys and girls of Frazier School District's cross country team.

Turek's train watching began when he was just a toddler. His grandfather, Ralph Del Sordo — “and half of Connellsville's West Side Hill” — worked for the B&O Railroad, he said.

Turek's memories of local trains go all the way back to the 1940s. In those days, the Western Maryland Railroad was still chugging along. The remnants of its trestle can be seen on the West Side near the former Big Sixx Tavern. Its train station on West Crawford Avenue still stands but is vacant; it previously housed Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Gallery.

“The Western Maryland's tracks were elevated; it ran above Duggan's Bakery. We could see it from our house on West Side Hill,” Turek remembered. “I think I said ‘caboose' and ‘boxcar' before I learned how to say ‘Mama' and ‘Dada.'”

His father, the late Joe Turek, was not a railroader. He worked for the Anchor Hocking Glass factory in South Connellsville. But the elder Turek was a train enthusiast, like so many Connellsville area residents.

First train in 1944

“Dad bought me my first train — a Marx model — in 1944, when I was only 2 years old,” said Turek. “He got it at the Western Auto store on North Pittsburgh Street.”

That train — O-gauge, which is twice the size of the smaller HO trains that most hobbyists use — now sits on the top shelf of Turek's collection in the basement of his Dunbar Township home.

Although Turek has a few HO models, he collects mostly O-gauge trains. “They're what I grew up with,” he explained.

As boys, he and his pal Joe Cartisano, who now lives in Wheeling, W.Va., squirmed with excitement each autumn, anticipating the arrival of new model trains for the Christmas season.

They made a beeline for downtown, straight to Levin's Furniture Store on North Pittsburgh Street.

“They had the largest train display in town, and we couldn't wait to see it,” Turek said.

Local stores recalled

Several other businesses sold model trains, too: Troutman's Department Store and Crislip's Appliance Store, to name two. Some sold Lionel and American Flyer trains, which cost more than the Marx trains. Marx makes O-gauge, but the cars are lighter-weight and printed rather than hand-painted. They were less expensive and wildly popular, “especially with blue-collar families,” Turek said. “We'd get them at Western Auto, Murphy's and McCrory's downtown.”

Lionel, which was founded in 1901, eventually purchased American Flyer. The Marx Co. is nearly as old as Lionel. Their trains are nicknamed “tinplate” and are still produced at the company's original location in Girard, between Erie and Pittsburgh.

Turek explained that the larger O-gauge trains were popular during Victorian times, when houses had large rooms. There was no television then. Families would set up their train displays for entertainment, especially at Christmas.

“West Side Hill at Christmas was like trick or treat,” said Turek, who always made it a point to visit the homes of Harry Paduone, Pete Salatino, Dick Caringola and Joe Cartisano. “Their displays were terrific!”

Lionel's earliest trains were standard gauge, which is even larger than O-gauge. Turek has several standard gauge models that are among his most prized possessions. Those date back to the 1920s.

Treasured B&O trains

Turek proudly displays several trains once owned by the late “Doc” Bill Colvin, a local physician from the Tri-Town area.

Then there's Turek's treasured B&O trains from the collection of the late “Buzzy” Barnhart, “who bought the model trains and repainted them by hand to match those in Connellsville's B&O railyard.”

“That's Connellsville history right there,” declared Turek of his Barnhart trains. “I'll never get rid of those!”

Turek has a small railroad scene set up in his basement. His 3-year-old grandson, Carter Wilson, the son of Turek's daughter Bethany Wilson, loves watching the trains in action. Turek's son Michael, who is principal of Frazier Middle School in Perryopolis, “is also a train guy,” along with friend Chuck Clayton. The three often team up when it comes to model trains.

Most of Turek's treasures are displayed on shelves and in glass cases. If he wants to see model trains chugging through elaborate scenes, he'll visit Connellsville's train museum when it opens in 2013.

Turek graduated from Connellsville High School in 1960 with Harry Clark Jr., son of the late Harry Clark of Normalville. Clark's 25- by 50-foot HO model train display will be featured in the museum being constructed on West Crawford Avenue downtown, next to ArtWorks. Local entrepreneur Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger purchased the display and is heading the museum project, assisted by the Fayette County Cultural Trust.

“Harry (Jr.) took me to his house one time to see the train display when we were kids. I never saw anything like that in my life!” Turek exclaimed. “It is wonderful. It was a lifetime of work. He (Clark) surely had a lot of patience.”

A newlywed at 70

When Turek visits the museum, he'll take along his wife, Patti Rae O'Hern Irwin Turek. Many years ago the two dated while in college, and each went their separate ways. They rediscovered each other at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church a couple of years ago and began dating. On Oct. 12, they “tied the knot” at St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church on the West Side with the Rev. Bob Lubic officiating.

On Nov. 7, Turek turned 70. “I just can't believe it,” he said.

October 2012 was a month to remember for sure — one ranking right up there with January 1954, when Turek was only 12 years old.

“I wanted this Lionel ‘Texas Special' train. Its price was reduced after Christmas, but it was still $29.99. That was a lot of money back then,” he remembered. “I begged my mother. She finally bought it for me. Five dollars down and $5 a month after. It took her six months to pay for that train.

“We didn't have a lot of money. We didn't even have a car back then, and there were three kids in my family. Looking back, I realize how much Mom sacrificed for me to have that ‘Texas Special,'” Turek marveled.

Tears came to his eyes. “It was such a wonderful, unselfish thing for her to do,” he said. “I'll never forget it.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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