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Colorado Toy Train Foundation teams up with veterans for special holiday exhibit

The Broomfield Veterans Museum is partnering with the Colorado Toy Train Foundation on an exhibit that showcases trains from the World War II era.
Stacie Johnson
Bear Owen, Vice President of the Colorado Toy Train Foundation, at a recent holiday exhibit at the Broomfield Veterans Museum.

Members of the Colorado Toy Train Foundation have been showcasing a model railroad exhibit at the Broomfield Veterans Museum that depicts military and holiday-themed trains from World War II and the Korean War eras.

Bear Owen, Vice President of the Foundation, who is also a member of the museum, explains the group's aim in doing the exhibit, especially during the height of the holiday season.

"Electric trains, toy trains have become traditional. A lot of people put them around the base of a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah tree. People are nostalgic about an electric train and a Christmas tree, and here at the Veterans Museum, we actually do have a Christmas tree with a loop of track and a train running around it. That's part of it. The other part of it is the Broomfield Veterans Museum, besides emphasizing Christmas and generating traffic for the museum, we also are running military-themed trains, focusing mainly on the World War II period," he said.

Owen says, the World War II era was an interesting period for the railroad industry as a switch occurred for pulling trains.

"Around World War II, American Railroads, which were a major industry for over a hundred years, a backbone industry of the American economy, switched from motive power locomotives that were powered by steam, either burning coal or oil or in an earlier period wood, it transitioned from that for pulling trains to diesel, electric locomotives. So it's an interesting period where you saw major different types of locomotion for pulling trains, and a lot of model railroaders model that period," said Owen.

The trains on display at the special exhibit at the Broomfield Veterans Museum focuses on World War II era trains.
Stacie Johnson
The exhibit at the Broomfield Veterans Museum features World War II era trains.

Besides a military train depiction and generating excitement for the holiday season, Owen says the group also has another primary emphasis for the display.

"A lot of parents are concerned that their kids have their noses stuck in an iPad or a phone constantly, and we've all gone into a restaurant and seen mom and dad and three kids, and they're not talking to each other. They have their face in one of these handheld devices. We love to have kids come and we've had a lot of 'em in here in the museum today, and it's just magical to watch their faces light up when they, we hand them a remote controller and they're controlling a large steam or diesel locomotive. They can sound the whistle or the horn. Turn the bell on and off, control the speed and it's magical," he said.

Owen says the Colorado Toy Trains Foundation's exhibit also offers a tangible aspect for kids.

"We also have a layout with what we call accessories. There's a barrel loader, a lumber loader, log loader, and unloader, a magnetic crane to pick up scrap metal, put into a gondola or a hopper car. And the kids love it. They love the three dimensional, and we don't say, 'don't touch.' We say, 'yeah, go ahead and touch it. Put those barrels in that barrel loader and then press the button and see the action happen.' And that's a big part of our goal is to get kids involved in something other than just electronic media," said Owen.

If you find you're using the term "bells and whistles," Owen and the Colorado Toy Train Foundation have an explanation for that.

"Toy trains go all the way back to the year 1900 when Joshua Lionel Cowen began Lionel Electric Trains and goes up through the present with all the onboard computerized controls and bells and whistles. The term bells and whistles, everybody uses that, a lot of them don't realize that it goes back to toy trains. That was a big innovation in electric trains was when Lionel came out with a whistle, an engine that whistled like steam engines," said Owen.

You can learn more about the Colorado Toy Train Foundation and their efforts and preserving fun not only for themselves, but for kids of all ages at coloradotoytrain.org.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Stacie Johnson is a reporter at KGNU in Boulder.