Experience Blossom Trail Train Weekends and Reedley Railfest with Hillcrest Tree FarmsFeb 28, 2020 11:00AM ● By Natalie Caudle
On the Right Track
Story by Natalie Caudle
Photos courtesy of Hillcrest Tree Farms
TUCKED AWAY in a wooded land filled with Christmas trees and giant pumpkins sits a farm reminiscent of a storybook setting. Hillcrest Tree Farm is a popular destination in the fall and winter seasons for whimsical Christmas-tree-hunting adventures and picturesque family portraits. But the spring months bring an equally enjoyable experience to the tree farm during the Blossom Trail Train Weekends and Reedley Railfest from the end of February through March.
Hillcrest Tree Farm was founded in 1960 by Ed Toews as the first “choose and cut” Christmas tree farm in the San Joaquin Valley. Toews owned and managed the farm for more than 30 years before Sean and Melissa Bautista purchased the property in 1992. Sean, a commercial airline pilot, had planned to live near a private runway in hopes to make an easier commute to the larger airports, but Melissa fell in love with the slower pace of the farm. Sean, too, loved the surroundings but wasn’t as eager to give up his dream. Seeing that they were at a junction, Sean found a perfect opportunity for bargaining, presenting Michelle with the proposition, “If I can’t live on the runway then I get to have a train.” The rest is locomotive history.
The love of the railroad first sparked in Sean’s grandfather, once a train conductor on the East Coast. During World War II, Sean’s mother worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and continued the zeal of the train legacy. Sean’s hobby may have been more fate than choice when his railway fascination ignited in childhood. Even he admits, “Railroads are in the blood.”
In 1994, Sean came across the perfect rideable train in an old railroad preservation magazine. After a year of negotiations, the train was shipped from Illinois to Reedley. Seven thousand feet of rails came in boxes, waiting to be assembled and looking more like spaghetti than a track. Sean, a former welder and mechanic, knew he could assemble the giant project before him; a little knowledge was all that stood between him and creating the perfect train to shuttle visitors throughout the farm. Turning to an instructional video, “Big Little Railroads,” Sean not only picked up the basics, but he also learned who the leading craftsmen were in the industry. Without hesitation, Sean contacted the professionals who willingly worked alongside him, sharing their knowledge and acting as mentors. These field experts who once felt like “movie stars” to the Bautistas have now become some of their closest friends.
A few years after beginning this railroad adventure, Sean was visited by a stranger who knew his train well. The man wanted the train back in its hometown in Illinois and asked if Sean would be willing to sell. Blindsided and a bit perplexed, Sean blurted out a sale price; the man agreed, wrote him a check and the train was shipped back to Illinois. Sean was left with a track but without a train for the farm.
Being a creative with mechanical talents and welding abilities, Sean and his team began designing and building rideable train cars. A hobby quickly grew into a business. Now with a full-time shop and seven employees, Sean and his crew specialize in restoration and manufacturing work, building all cars, tracks and switches in the shop. The crew restores train cars for various companies and amusement parks, as well. The farm has expanded from the original five to 45 acres with the ultimate goal of the train shuttling tourists and trees from the top to the bottom of the farm. The last hurdle is a bridge installation that will begin later this spring with hopes of completion by the holiday season.
Using specialized and antique equipment, Sean and his team have built train cars and installed tracks throughout the farm, giving train rides to children of all ages. Families enjoy the pajama nighttime ride during December and the beautiful blossom rides in March. The Reedley Railfest, March 21 and 22, is especially popular, with live music, food, trains from throughout the Western U.S. and unique gems from the Sacramento State Railroad Museum. Sean invites everyone to join the fun. “Come enjoy a tour of the farm on an exquisite half-scale live steam narrow gauge railroad,” he says. “Everything is blossoming and green; it’s fun for the whole family.”
Sean and Melissa have built quite a haven in the countryside of the San Joaquin Valley. The two have combined their talents, Michelle tending to the farm with her green thumb and Sean tending to the railroad and shop with his fix-it skills. Their ability to synergize their creativity has made for a unique and wooded space, a perfect retreat that captures the imagination and adventure of childhood. •
Hillcrest Tree Farms • (559) 859-3959
Blossom Trail Train Weekends and Reedley Railfest
February 29 - March 22
(Railfest on March 21 and 22)
Find them on Facebook • www.hillcrestreedley.com
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.