With the holiday season approaching, model railroad buffs from far and wide will be heading to our region’s preeminent display at the Carnegie Science Center. Many older Northsiders recall that display being on the ground floor of the former Buhl Planetarium.
As wonderful as it is with the terrific display of the terrain, industries, towns, and landmarks of Southwestern Pennsylvania, it always reminds me of the many hours spent working with my own American Flyer set that was under our Christmas tree in the 1950s. That train set is tucked away in a big old box in the corner of our basement. In all probability many boxes of Lionel and American Flyer sets are stored away in the homes of Northside families who do not want to part with many good memories associated with their trains.
Most of my friends in the ‘50s were paperboys. We carried the Pittsburgh Press and Sun Telegraph every afternoon to subscribers in our respective neighborhoods. (I was so "lucky" to deliver to the one house on the Riverview Park side of the Davis Avenue Bridge.) In those days the papers sold for a nickel a copy on weekdays and fifteen cents on Sundays. We made a penny a paper on a daily. With 70 to 80 customers we made $10 or $12 a week.
The biggest week of the year was just before Christmas when we all looked forward to our Christmas tips. No one ever gave up a route until after the holidays. We used a sizable part of those tips to supplement our train set-up. That was done the week after Christmas when all train accessories were marked down to half price. We would buy more track, new automated cars, and various pieces to supplement our platform villages. Most of these pieces were made of paper and came from "occupied Japan." Then, Plasticville arrived.
In "The Graduate," as Dustin Hoffman emerges from the swimming pool his neighbor tells him the word to remember: plastic. Of course, we who annually designed and constructed underground villages on our train platforms had already become addicted to "Plasticville." Cape Cod and ranch style houses, barns, gas stations, schools, churches, fire stations and even a massive hospital, all made of easily assembled plastic parts, were in. Papier-mâché was definitely out.
This was long before the ceramic Dickens-like buildings of Department 56 appeared on the horizon. Our source for all of this train and Plasticville paraphernalia was the basement of Gabosch’s Hardware at the corner of Brighton Road and Woods Run Avenue. Here we spent most of our well-earned Christmas tips.
By the end of the next decade trains were replaced with a wide variety of race car tracks and then video game systems. Now there are so many electronic options that the trains seem so passive and passé. Yet, as October leads into November and Light-Up nights herald the coming of Christmas, I find myself drawn to eBay to see what pieces of American Flyer are on the cyber market. Then what to my wandering eyes do appear but pages and pages of Plasticville pieces at prices far far beyond what we paid in the ‘50s.
Ah yes there is no better motivator in the electronic marketplace that good dose of holiday nostalgia. It reminds me to make definite plans to visit the Model R.R. village at the Science Center, and, if I take the Christmas House Tour in Allegheny West, to gaze upon the extraordinary train collection at Holmes Hall.