Little trains, big smiles for Mandarin collector

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By Martie Thompson

To Steve Johnson of Mandarin, trains are more than just fascinating; they are a way of life. A toy train collector since the age of 10, Johnson has amassed everything from signals to insulators to a brass bell from a B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) steam engine. So it is not by accident that the new home he shares in the Beauclerc area with his wife, Linda, has a specially designed and built train room to accommodate his treasures.

Johnson collects post-war Lionel O-gauge trains. Made of tin plate rather than plastic, they are the kind of trains that he says his father would have played with growing up. His father spent a lot of time traveling on trains and always had an affinity for them, Johnson said.

“When I was an adult, my dad asked, ‘why are you so into trains?’” Johnson said. “I told him, ‘because I grew up with you!’”

In addition to his love of trains, Johnson’s train room is home to several antiques from his grandfather’s hardware store, including display cabinets, a desk, a file cabinet and a player piano that had to be moved into the upstairs room prior to the completion of construction due to its size. The train room also has display cabinets to house Johnson’s collection, with room to grow.

Hard-wired into the electrical system and operated with a simple wall switch are various signals and lamps, including a signal from train tracks in New York. Since the house was recently built, Johnson is still unpacking his artifacts, but future plans include setting up multiple train layouts in the center of the room.

Johnson is a CPA who works from home in a wood paneled library office, where a Blue Comet toy train cheerily travels around the entire room on a specially built track high up near the ceiling.

His wife, Linda Johnson, whom he met while they were both in school at Emory University, has a master’s degree in Medical Science, Learning Disabilities and is the former head of school for Hendricks Day School. The Johnsons have three grown children, and although each has a train that goes around the Christmas tree, none has quite caught the train bug — yet.

“Train collectors do seem to be of a certain age,” Johnson said.

As the vice president of the Southern Division of the Train Collectors Association he said the association is actively trying to attract younger members to its activities. One way the collectors hope to expose potential hobbyists is by hosting train shows that feature association members’ toy trains (standard gauge and O-gauge) and model trains (the smaller HO-gauge and Z-gauge) for show and purchase.

Johnson said he has never met anyone who wasn’t fascinated by trains, even if they weren’t collectors and added, “It seems that everyone, young and old, just loves trains.”

For more information about the Train Collectors Association Southern Division, visit www.tcasoutherndivision.org

Toy Train Collectors of Jacksonville owns a large train layout that was built years ago with money donated by CSX. It will be set up at the Museum of Science and History (MOSH) from Dec. 16 through New Year’s weekend.

Steve Johnson shows one of his Lionel O-gauge in his specially-built train room.