There is a very special attraction in Foley that celebrates model trains. The museum quality exhibit is free and open three days a week. It takes skill to keep the trains running, and here in Foley it is operated by a talented group of volunteers called the Caboose Club.
At the south end of the 60 foot model railroad layout a former military and American Airlines pilot is pulling the New York Central Broadway Limited into the station with bells ringing and model passengers waiting to board. Further down the layout a former paper company executive and retired Naval officer is watching the Union Pacific giant Challenger locomotive haul a consist of coal hoppers on one of the four mainlines. Other members active in electronic maintenance of 32 detailed locomotives include a Marine from Hawaii, a Michigan prison guard, a former radio station owner and puppeteer and the engineer of a “real” locomotive.
These six and a dozen others are members of the Caboose Club, an unlikely affiliation of volunteers who operate and maintain the model railroad rolling stock for the thousands of visitors to the Foley Train Depot museum.
That the Caboose Club continues to exist after more than 15 years is a testament to casual organization. The Caboose Club has no charter, no by-laws, no officers and no official status. The members meet monthly, but they don’t read or approve minutes of previous meetings. No one takes minutes of the meetings because there is no secretary. The club has no assets to track, so they don’t need a treasurer. “But the City gives us free T-shirts.” a member boasted.
The model railroad layout regularly runs four mainline trains, the kid-favorite Thomas the Train on the Evergreen addition and a miniature N-scale park train over a model of Bienville Square in Mobile, Ala. The bulk of the 32 original locomotives and more than a hundred passenger and freight cars were a gift from a Montgomery businessman who retired to Florida and couldn’t take his trains with him. The entire collection was donated to the City of Foley with only the stipulation that it be on public display without charge. The City built an annex to the L&N Railroad Depot Museum to house the display. The Caboose Club, at the time a group of friends who gathered weekly at the museum to watch train videos, stepped up to build the display and the elevated platform that overlooks the entire layout. Three original members of that club, and one who joined the first year of operation, are still active.
The finished display opened to the public on Feb. 15, 2007. The Club is celebrating 15 years in operation.
The 1200 square-foot exhibit is filled with detailed scenery and buildings. It simulates an average small town of the 1950’s, including city streets and sidewalks, railroad crossings, a circus venue, Ferris wheel, drive-in movie theater, schools, churches, a fire station with firefighters (who have been attempting to extinguish a major building fire for 15 years) a replica potato shed and a machine shop.
Visitors, who have signed in from every American state as well as many foreign countries, participate in a “scavenger” hunt, locating 50 of the most prominent features.
The present Caboose Club roster consists of 20 members, including a half dozen “snowbirds” who arrive regularly each fall and work until spring. The Club is always soliciting new members from among visitors to perform the regular equipment maintenance and operation of the 32 locomotives, half steam and half diesel. Model trains, whether Lionel, MTH or other popular “toy trains”, were never built to run the full schedule of 12 continuous hours required by the Caboose Club, so trains are rotated on a bi-weekly schedule.
The locomotives are operated by digital remote control. Volunteers must learn an entire new language to become comfortable operating the trains and explaining them to the visitors.
Anyone who might be interested in joining the club can fill out an application during the time the exhibit is open.
Visitor hours for the Model Railroad exhibit are 10 AM to 2 PM on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Volunteers are invited to visit or contact the club at firstname.lastname@example.org