With winter behind us it is time to put away the snow shovel, ice scrapers and bags of ice melt pellets. After months of snow, we welcome the green grass and the first buds waiting to become leaves …
With winter behind us it is time to put away the snow shovel, ice scrapers and bags of ice melt pellets. After months of snow, we welcome the green grass and the first buds waiting to become leaves on our county’s lush forests.
In my youth, spring gave me the opportunity to add to my baseball card collection. I was a huge fan of Willie Mays and saved all his cards, wrapping them in plastic to keep them pristine. Unlike cards of Marv Throneberry and Tom Tresh, Willie’s cards were never flipped nor thrown closest to the wall.
Spring brought another transition. In my bedroom I had a toy train set on a piece of plywood. Festooned around the oval track were sponges that resembled bushes and trees. I had two sets of these decorations. For fall and winter, I arranged multicolored shrubbery to resemble the foliage during cold months. About the same time spring training was gearing up for the baseball season. I swapped out the orange, yellow and red sponges for the bright green ones that meant summer was right around the bend.
Growing up there were two types of available train sets. While some of my friends chose to use an HO train set, I went with Lionel, the classic that started the toy train craze. The HO trains were much smaller than the Lionel system and, at least for me, lacked the semblance of realism.
Lionel is a model train company founded in New York City by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900. Its first train, called the Electric Express, hit the tracks in 1901. It was the world’s first electric toy train. His company capitalized on the nation’s growing love of real trains that ran on electricity. Passenger trains like the Twentieth Century Limited symbolized American technology and growth.
Soon it was displayed in toy store windows and thrilled kids around the country. That display was recreated in the classic movie “A Christmas Story” as Ralphie watched the train circle the tracks in front of the Red Ryder BB gun.
Seeing the excitement it caused, Lionel began building train sets for consumers. Their sturdy construction and attention to detail led to adults joining their children in creating scenes of small towns surrounding the train tracks. Sensing the potential for additional revenue, Lionel eventually began selling miniature accessories that would add realism to the family’s model railroad display.
Usually, the first added piece were train cars that could be hooked up somewhere after the locomotive and before the caboose. Soon, miniature stores, shops and houses were offered by the company. Since you could control the electric train, it was exciting to have your train pull into a depot to load merchandise into a boxcar. One of the first accessory items I purchased was a plastic X-shaped sign that said, “Railroad Crossing,” with a uniformed attendant standing nearby.
To keep the public’s interest the Lionel Company introduced novel items. One of their most popular accessory add-ons was a Mickey and Minnie Mouse handcar. By winding it up they seemingly pumped the lever to propel them down the tracks. It was sold for one dollar and became such a craze that Lionel could not keep up with the demand. For those who collect Lionel items, the handcar is valued today at about two hundred dollars.
Other companies jumped on the toy train craze and competed with Lionel. Consumers realized that you could buy items to enhance your train setup from a variety of outlets. Eventually the toy train craze ebbed and the company sold its Lionel Trains Inc. trademark in 1993 for ten million dollars.
My family moved a few times in the years following my childhood. I remember boxing up my train set and baseball cards before they were loaded into a moving van.
I hope that somehow my boxed train set found its way into the hands of someone who appreciated it. Maybe he or she is now pulling a boxcar into the depot to load up some merchandise before moving down the tracks between my green sponge shrubbery.
Also, if somehow my mint condition Willie Mays cards wound up in your possession, congratulations. His 1951 rookie card is valued at over ninety thousand dollars!
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