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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Annual Toy and Model Train Show in Porterville

Nov 30, 2019 11:00AM ● By Enjoy Magazine

All Aboard

December 2019
Story by Natalie Caudle
Photos courtesy of Porterville Museum

SITTING AT THE BASE of the Sierra Nevadas, Porterville was settled in the mid-19th century as a farming community. Named after Royal Porter Putnam, the city became incorporated in 1902 after gaining popularity by miners of magnetite ore. Porterville soon became the home to a Southern Pacific Railroad passenger station, which later closed in the 1950s. In 1965, thanks to the diligence of local supporters, the station was repurposed and opened as a historical museum. 

Today, the museum displays various exhibits of the local past, bringing in the eager history buff and busloads of school children. One of the most popular exhibitions is the Annual Toy and Model Train Show. Opening the day after Thanksgiving and running through the first week of the new year, the show guarantees to pique the interest of children of all ages.

The show is still chugging down the tracks after 35 years of annual holiday displays. Occupying two of the museum display rooms and running 34 trains simultaneously, the energy and excitement captures the curiosity of hobby lovers. Throughout the rooms are different themes and layouts, including winter and holiday scenes. Behind the trains is a 20-foot span of glass cases that stand six feet high. Stored safely behind the glass is an incredible display of retro toys, some as far back as the early 1900s. The entire collection is from Bill Warner and includes a Red Ryder BB Gun and the original cardboard case, a gem that Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” would surely find stupendous. Vintage toy automobiles, airplanes, dolls and tea sets are also on display.  

The majority of the trains and accessories in the exhibit are from private collections. The holiday display takes more than two months to put together, as great detail is given to each of the scenes. There are six different train layouts and various themes including military, industrial and mountain. The 34 trains are of varying gauges including Z, N, HO, S and O. 

Frank Spina, who prefers the American Flyer S Gauge trains, is a museum volunteer and regularly donates his train collection as part of the annual display. Spina grew up on the East Coast not far from a toy factory and still finds his childhood joy when tinkering with his hobby of model trains. Spina is a member of the Central California Model Railroad and Historical Society, a division of the Toy Train Operating Society. 

The vintage trains are from the 1940s and 1950s. Originally purchased in pieces, the scenes require creativity and foresight as there is not a pattern or specific plan to follow.

Each setting is unique and the accessories seem to bring them to life. Operated by a push button, different trains have coal loaders, log loaders, a wandering cow on the track and a mail pick-up. Children can be found squealing for joy as Spina pushes a button and a tiny conductor comes out to welcome them. Not only do the accessories add a little flair to the trains, they teach about the nation’s history. One of the more popular accessories is the mail pick-up. A plastic bag of mail is hung on a post and as the train rolls on by, a mechanical arm picks up the bag. This teeny toy serves as a reminder of a little piece of American history. Prior to mail being transported by plane, the railroads served as a vital piece of the United States Postal Service, a little tidbit of history that isn’t forgotten, thanks to the model trains.

The Toy and Model Train Show is a success due to the efforts and time of multiple volunteers. Local optometrist Don Stover serves on the museum board of directors and helps spearhead the show. Spina gives Stover the glory, saying, “Without his energy and devotion, we wouldn’t have the show we have.” 

The purpose of the show is not only to display the fun of yesteryear but to bring children into the museum. Admission to the train show gives attendees access to the entire museum and the opportunity to glean knowledge about the important contributions of Porterville history. The Porterville Museum hopes that a spark of interest will be ignited as children come for the trains but stay for the history.

Spina encourages children of all ages to climb aboard. “If you’re looking for a fun hour and you don’t mind a drive, you should do it.” •

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Annual Toy & Train Show
Nov 29-Jan 4 Open during Regular Museum Hours
Admission: Adults $8, Kids 6-17 $2, Under 6 Free

 Homegrown in the Valley, Natalie Caudle finds beauty in the mundane and is ever on the hunt for the perfect salsa recipe. A mother of four, this minivan chauffeur is passionate about adoption and strives to perfect the art of balancing grace and grit.