Note: My friend and journalistic colleague of nearly 30 years, wrote this story about my brother's model railroad hobby in December 2010. Danny Henley received journalism honors for his work, and Becker Spaun's hobby gathered nationwide attention, as the story was picked up by newspapers across the Associated Press and GateHouse distribution areas.
Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Thursday, December 9, 2010
Author: Danny Henley, firstname.lastname@example.org
When Becker and Linda Spaun were deciding whether or not to buy their home on Hummingbird Lane, the couple's different priorities regarding their prospective residence quickly came into focus.
"She was looking at the pretty carpet," recalls Spaun. "She caught me stepping off how big the basement was. I was looking for a big, dry basement."
While spacious, moisture-free basements are important to people who either want to use the area for storage or as additional living space, Spaun's concern is the well-being of his personal railroad, which he estimates now takes up two thirds of his basement.
The 61-year-old Spaun began working on his railroad layout decades ago.
"Some of the tables are from when I originally started building the layout in 1975 when I bought my first house," he said.
Originally, Spaun's train layout was 27 feet long and 12 feet wide.
"Now that's just a small part of my train set," he said.
Because his layout is so expansive, Spaun built it with a unique style.
"I had a friend who I worked with at the fire department, Carl King, who came up with the idea of building it like an amphitheater where the farther away a train is, the higher it is," he said.
Being able to see a train in motion is important, considering Spaun can have multiple trains running simultaneously.
"I can run five trains at one time," he said, adding that because each runs on a separate track there is no risk of collisions.
No two trains are alike, if Spaun so desires.
"I can make up lots of different trains. I can have some passenger trains with as little as three cars or as many as 15. I can make an 80-car coal train and hook it to three engines," he said.
Model trains are designed to run on specific track widths, or gauges.
"I like the HO a lot because it looks more realistic and you can get quite a bit of train in an area," said Spaun, who credits his brother, Robert, with figuring out the necessary wiring schematics and building an electrical transformer that keeps the HO system functioning properly.
While Spaun is not shy about mixing and matching cars and train engines from different eras, he is sensitive to engines and cars with a local connection.
"I try to stick with stuff that came through Hannibal or had something to do with Hannibal," he said.
Many of the engines and rail cars that Spaun now has in his collection, he remembers seeing as a boy.
"My dad (William B. Spaun) had a love for trains. Dad would take me down to the railroad yard and passenger station to watch the trains," he said. "I've got pictures of me at age 2 watching trains go by."
Spaun's father also introduced him to model trains.
"Dad started building a big train set in our attic in 1956. It was his, but he would let us play with it some. It was always hot or cold up there," he said, adding that many of the train engines and cars from his dad's collection are now on display at Big River Train Town in Hannibal.
When 8 or 9 years old, Spaun received a Tyco train set, which he kept under his bed. About a year later Spaun got home from school to find his father unloading boxes filled with model train items that he had purchased from Frank Waelder.
"He told me if I would clean the coal area in the basement I could have that area for my train set," recalls Spaun, who put that train set on four 8-foot sheets of plywood. "I still have all the trains Frank sold my dad."
Despite all the pieces Spaun's personal railroad consists of, he's still on the lookout for more.
"Every so often I get on eBay and look around," he said, noting prices can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. "I also go to train shows. If there's something I know I don't have or need like an extra car I've got more than I need right now."
Becker Spaun is the brother of Courier-Post Editor Mary Lou Montgomery.