A Tradition of Toy Trains

toy trains

Most kids’ eyes light up as they see the tree on Christmas morning, but for young John Spall, that excitement came a month earlier when his father and uncle set up the family’s model train over Thanksgiving break. 

“I would sit at the top of the basement stairs with my brothers and sister, anticipating the moment mother would allow us to go down and see the train. We could hear my dad and uncle laughing as they set it up, and we’d hear the sounds of the train running. ‘We’re doing a test run,’ they would shout up, like two big kids down there playing,” said Spall. “Mom would finally say, ‘Let the kids come down.’ There was something new and different every year, so the anticipation was worth it.”  

As a young adult, Spall packed away the trains he’d inherited, but he revived the Christmas train tradition when his sons were young. Later, at his Michigan home, the basement had two stairwells, so neighborhood children would line the top of the stairs, repeating the tradition that Spall and his siblings had done in their childhood. “We’d turn off the lights and have seven different trains running at once. It was something,” Spall said nostalgically. 

The train tradition stayed with Spall as he moved from state to state and after his children grew up. He and an acquaintance once joined forces to create a large train display at the local historical society. After an enthusiastic response, Spall helped organize a local train club. 

He eventually became involved with the Toy Train Operating Society (TTOS), a nationwide organization that encourages model railroading. “And not just to collect trains,” Spall said, “But to run trains, at home or public events in the community. The word ‘operating’ is key to the mission. We are interested in keeping the hobby going, fostering new young people or those who grew up with train traditions.”  

When Spall first started participating in train demonstrations with TTOS, his friends called him Two-Table John, but as his inventory grew, he bumped up to four tables, then six, then eight. His collection grew from traditional 1950s Lionel trains to include collectible tin trains from the 1920s. Spall was elected as the TTOS Western Region director in 2019. It was an unexpected nomination, but the timing was right, as Spall was about to retire from his career. His division now hosts four public shows each year, including the addition of an Edmond show this year.   

His wife, Joan, actively participates in John’s model train activity. She attends shows, sells tickets, and even owns her own personal train set. “Joan’s been part of model railroading from the beginning,” Spall said. “The Thanksgiving that I asked her to marry me, we’d just set up the train in the basement.”

Their collection, which numbers almost 1,000 pieces, is set up in a custom-built room they call The Train Library. Display cases line the room, along with a low countertop that travels along three sides of the room for running the trains. “Part of the excitement is getting out trains, setting them up, and running them; not just letting them sit in a case,” Spall said. “I think the winning formula is to put them away, wait for the next time to enjoy it, and get them back out. We look forward to having one under the tree every Christmas.” 

To learn more, visit www.ttos-soonerdiv.org

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