Christmas starts early for members of the Bluegrass Railroad Club — next weekend, when they can run their trains at the annual Southern Lights holiday display at the Kentucky Horse Park.
On Saturday, members were setting up their modules and linking the tracks for this year's edition, which will be in the park's Bit & Bridle Restaurant.
This is the only time of year most of the members get to run their trains because not everybody has enough space at home to put together a full-size layout. During the year, they work on individual modules — intricate sections of scenery and backdrops that link together along the tracks. They clean them, repaint and add new features, or put together a new piece. Some modules have lights and features that move.
Each 2-foot-by-4-foot section tells a story, such as the "Winter Paradise" module by Joshua Johnson of Lexington, the club president. It's a scene of pristine snow, with tiny Christmas lights on a farmhouse, horses in a paddock and kids skating on a frozen pond. Johnson put it together in his spare time over about four years.
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In the off-season, Connie Stokes of Winchester scours craft and hardware stores for twigs and artificial greenery that she turns into realistic trees, shrubs and plants for elaborate ornamentation around the towns built for her husband John's trains. This year, she added a movie theater showing The African Queen.
The tiny details, such as the dog stealing the laundry or the Sears catalog hanging in the outhouse, bring the scene to life, said Doug Bagby of Richmond. "It's really good to get a reaction," he said.
Other off-season activities include buying new trains, such as the Lionel model of a modern CSX railroad engine the club hopes to debut next weekend, provided it will fit through their existing tunnels.
Members own the side pieces, but the club owns the corners to make sure they can complete a track. One key example, created by a founding member more than 20 years ago and inherited by the club, features Godzilla about to chomp into a tanker next to a billboard that says, "Everybody loves model trains."
"We never put the layout together the same way twice," past club president Bob Larger said.
Members sign up to come each night of Southern Lights, bringing their own trains to wow the crowd. Some setups can handle two or three trains at a time.
"More than that and you can get some very realistic train wrecks," Larger said.
The trains do draw crowds. The Horse Park invited the club to come to the first event in 1994, and it was such a hit that the club has been back ever since. The exhibit grew until this year, when members had to give up space for a special museum exhibit.
"We've heard a lot of people saying they come to see the trains. They go through the lights to see the trains," Larger said.
But the real thrill for club members is watching children peer intently just over the edge of the tables as the trains come around the track.
"When they have to pull the kids out of here kicking and screaming, it really makes our night," Larger said.