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All aboard! Penney Train Club takes visitors on a whimsical ride of fantasy, nostalgia

By Lee Wardlaw lee@claytodayonline.com
Posted 1/11/23

PENNEY FARMS – There’s a hiding gem at the Penney Farms Retirement Community – the Penney Train Club.

The club holds a special place in the heart of the residents, as the model trains invoke …

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All aboard! Penney Train Club takes visitors on a whimsical ride of fantasy, nostalgia


Posted

PENNEY FARMS – There’s a hiding gem at the Penney Farms Retirement Community – the Penney Train Club.

The club holds a special place in the heart of the residents, as the model trains invoke a multitude of nostalgic memories from their childhood.

“This brings back lots and lots of memories to our folks that live here, and it’s a great place to bring the grandkids because they seem to really like (the trains) as well,” said club president, Jon Nelson.

Nelson has served as the president of the club since 2020, which is when took over for former president, Jim Archibald.

“Two years ago, I came in and moved to Penney Farms, and I walked in. And of course, a couple of guys were here that wanted me to introduce myself, and the trains came up. ‘I said, yeah, I’ve got a small collection of vinyl trains, and a layout’. As I’m showing them the pictures, they said, ‘Well, you’re going to be the president,’” Archibald said.

With video games, television and social media now gaining so much popularity with children from Generation Z and Generation Alpha, the club is dedicated to educating the younger generation about the impact that the toys had on their grandparents.

The true magic happens when the grandchildren put down the video games and social media and visit the site alongside their grandparents. They can hear old stories of when model trains dominated the toy market.

When this happens, an unbreakable bond between young and old is created.

“Grandparents always played with trains, and they talk about it. And when they can bring their grandkids in here, the (children) can actually see it, and they can tell them ‘Well, I used to have this train as a kid. Then, they can really start to bond, and in the end, the young child can understand what their grandfather or grandmother was talking about,” he said.

Children and families aren’t the only ones that enjoy a space that includes seven exhibits.

“We have a lot of missionaries here, and those from Germany and Japan enjoy the bullet train,” Nelson said.

Similar to Santa’s workshop, plenty of helpers are needed to maintain a well-oiled machine otherwise known as the Penney Train Club. Those helpers will need to have a keen eye for the finest of details.

Volunteers are responsible for completing a myriad of tasks, many of which require great skill and attention to detail.

An electrician changes the little lights on a tiny model building on one of the tables. Replacing new train tracks from old, painting model trains and creating a landscape littered with anything from small shrubs to trees and pathways are just a few of the tasks that must be completed on a large to-do list.

Sixteen volunteers report to Nelson to receive instruction, but those that participate are ready and willing to get to work while pursuing a passion that brings them back to the heyday of the model trains from the 1940s, 1950s and earlier.

Seven tables depict elaborate scenes mirroring Penney Farms and other small towns, which are created to scale. The model trains sit still when the shop is closed, but when Nelson and his volunteers host a tour group, it only takes the flip of a switch or press of a button via a smartphone application to torpedo the trains back into action, traveling through a realistic wild west-style landscape and tunnels cut through the walls of the shop.

The application can operate the train’s horn, bells, speed, lights and the power of the new technology will allow the Penney Train Club to expand their tracks later this year, as they will be able to free up more space that is now taken up by the electric operating equipment.

Public showings at the Penney Train Club were extremely busy during the December holiday season and are still popular after the new year.

Nelson estimates that he hosted up to 40 guests at one public showing off the sleek sets. The club’s president offers a peek inside of the building to anyone interested on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

Upon entering the doors, visitors have the opportunity to see several diverse display sizes, models and brands of toy trains, which should provide an excellent variety that all model train lovers should enjoy.

“It’s very unusual to have seven different sizes of trains in one building, but we’re very fortunate,” Nelson said.

“We’ve had a lot of private showings, and that’s really where I like to get the family in here and see where they want to go in the building,” he said.

The club was kickstarted in 1999 when the community asked Archibald to relocate his scale toy train setup from his former home in Maryland to his new home at the retirement community.

Archibald served as a long-time member and president of the club before he passed away in 2022.

However, his legacy will be remembered at the club and the community.

You can book an appointment to visit the Penney Train Club by calling Nelson’s cellphone at (912) 409-6581. To access the building, simply visit The Penney Retirement Community at 3495 Hoffman St. The exterior of the building is adorned with a railroad crossing sign and is located across the street from Penney Retirement Community’s headquarters dining hall. You can’t miss it.