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Toy trains bring back the boy in Mt. Juliet man

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Jim Tate grew up on the family farm in Mt. Juliet and enjoyed a career with the U.S. Postal Service, but he became passionate about collecting toy trains in the 1990s and today serves as president of the Music City Chapter of the Train Collectors Association. Most of the trains on these shelves were made by Marx.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

MT. JULIET — Jim Tate vividly remembers the first toy train he held in the palm of his hands.

“I got a steam engine, tender, tank car, gondola and caboose from my parents for Christmas. I guess I was 6 or 7. Some of the cars were stuck up in limbs of the tree,” said Tate, 60, who retired in 2001 from the postal service after a 27-year career.

Serving as president of the Music City Chapter of the Train Collectors Association for the past six years, he still has that first toy train set plus a hundred or more other train sets to boot.

“The main reason I got back into trains in the early ’90s was because my cousin was in the train club in Nashville, and he wanted to see my trains. I showed them to him, and the engine had quit running. He got new brushes to put in the motor and then the thing ran like a scalded dog,” Tate said. “He told me about the Nashville train show and I got the fever. It’s gotten a bit out of hand.”

Tate and the 130 members of the local chapter of the Train Collectors Association will hold their 16th Annual Kids Christmas Toy Train Show 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville.

The train collector club, which has about eight members in Wilson County, meets in April and August but chugs out a variety of events throughout the year. Its goal is two-fold: to preserve tin-plate trains and to promote the hobby of running trains to the younger generation.

“At the show on Saturday, people will find old and new trains of all gauges,” Tate said. “We’ll have eight operating layouts, and we’ll have one or two non-electric layouts on the floor that the kids can get down and play with. If you’re looking for trains to get as gifts, we’ll have dealers with new starter sets and over 200 tables of trains of some form or fashion.”

 Choo-choos for kids of all ages

What: The 16th Annual Kids Christmas Toy Train Show(Sponsored by the Music City Chapter Train Collectors Association),several kid-friendly (Thomas the Tank Engine, Lionel O gauge, American Flyer, S gauge and Garden Railroad G gauge) model train layouts will be on display, and old and new toy trains will be for sale or trade.

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Tennessee State Fairgrounds, Agricultural Bldg., Wedgewood Ave., in Nashville.

Admission: Ages 13 and older, $7; ages 12 and younger, freeMore information: Call 758-6003 or go online to www.dixiedivisiontca.com/music-city.

 

Tate knows plenty about hard work, whether it be on the family farm that turns 200 years old next year or with the U.S. Post Office. He was a mail carrier in the Gladeville area for 21 years, and during his last six years his duties took him to about every post office from Elizabethton in East Tennessee to Memphis next to the mighty Mississippi. But he also knows plenty about toy trains. 

He has shelves brimming with top brands of model trains such as Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, Kusan, Ives and Hafner, and the train cars bear such historical names as Chesapeake & Ohio, Frisco, Union Pacific, AT&SF and Erie. 

A small sign in his house reads:

Warning! ContagiousModel Railway DieselAdult males very susceptible

“The major reason most people get into trains is because when we were growing up, the toy train companies put out catalogs. There were a lot of things we would have liked to have had back then but couldn’t afford. Now we can,” Tate said.

“It’s also a hobby. You can come in from work and turn on your trains and forget your problems. Or you come in and work on them. I enjoy repairing them.”

In his living room a few shelves hold mostly Marx trains.

“Louis Marx made primarily tin-plate windup toys. His goal was to make trains for people who couldn’t afford Lionel and American Flyer,” the collector said.

Beside the marvelous Marx models are a few Kusan trains, which Tate said were made in Franklin in the 1950s and that favored military and space themes.

The toy train man said that Lionel made the first toy train in 1901 and that it operated on batteries. A few years later model trains were circling the tracks via electric power. While many of the early trains were standard gauge or about 3 inches wide, because the tracks took up so much space, the manufacturers began creating O gauges, which were not as wide, and then smaller gauges, such as S, HO, N scale and Z scale, followed.

Lionel, a major player in the toy train business, quit making trains during World War II and turned its muscle toward helping the war effort, but when the war ended, the company got back on track.

“In the late ’40s, toy trains grew in favor,” Tate said. “Of course, it was a time when everybody was riding trains. The heyday for toy trains was in 1955. After that the hobby got to going down due to other types of games and toys like race car sets, model kits and electric-type games such as football. It was just not as important for a child to have a train, but trains, BB guns and bicycles were about the only toys we would play with when I was young.”

Tate reported that Lionel got in bad financial shape in the late 1960s and was bought out by General Mills.

“The very early 1970s trains got real cheap, trashy. The quality was bad,” he said. “In the late ’70s, Richard Kughn bought Lionel. He was a train collector and he got the quality back up, and it had as much popular appeal with adults in the 1980s as it did to children.

“We’ve got 70 million baby boomers about ready to retire, and a lot of them still have their train sets from the ’50s and ’60s, and I see many of them getting back into the hobby again.”

Tate said that there were three factors in recent years that have made toy trains grow in popularity: 1. Thomas the Tank Engine; 2. “Polar Express,” the film; and 3. Hogwarts Express from the “Harry Potter” books and movies.

Modern technology has played a role as well.

“In the last 10 years, they’ve got sound electronics that makes a steam engine sound just like they did years ago, and there are hand-held remotes that can do anything,” Tate said.

While collectors may have mined old trains at flea markets and yard sales 20 years ago, today he says most antique trains are purchased at toy train shows such as the one Saturday in Nashville.

He notes that the cost of trains and train parts is based on “supply and demand” and shares an example about a specific model tailor-made for girls in the late 1950s that was painted pink and lavender colors. Girls, however, wanted trains like the boys, so it didn’t sell well. Today, one of those sets is worth $2,000, while it originally sold for $39.95.

“I’ve enjoyed looking at these trains and enjoyed collecting them. There’s one thing I have noticed. Very few people will not smile when they are looking at trains running on a layout,” said a smiley-faced Tate.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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