FORT WORTH — With the click-clack of half-dollar-size wheels on 1¼-inch rails and tiny puffs of smoke from shiny black engines, a pair of electric Lionel trains still have the power to deliver dreams as they did almost 60 years ago.In those days, Leonard’s Department Store had the biggest, most magical holiday toy display in the state of Texas, say heirs of the legendary Fort Worth store’s founders.As of Wednesday, the trains are once again making their appointed rounds at the behest of the Leonard family, chugging along as part of the collection of the Leonard Department Store Museum at 200 Carroll St.“It’s pretty exciting,” said Marty Leonard, daughter of store founder Marvin Leonard. She began collecting memorabilia about eight years ago in space next to the M&O Station Grill.Many things were easy to find, but acquisition of the Christmas train set display took more than three decades.“I got it from Greg Dow just a few months ago,” Leonard said. “I knew he had it, but he wasn’t ready to let it go yet.”Dow, a lifelong model train collector, bought the circa-1955 set in 1980 at an estate sale. It had been in storage since 1996, so he recently decided that it would be best to sell it back to Leonard.He sent her a letter, and the deal to move it to the museum was struck.Before Wednesday, Dow hadn’t seen the train run in about 16 years.“Usually, stores would keep these around for about three years, then more than likely sell them to some wealthy businessman for his children,” Dow said.Sometimes they would be put in storage; other times they were simply dumped in the trash.“Luckily this one was in storage,” he said.Though the two O-gauge trains are charming in their detail and mechanics, Dow said the curvy tracks and pristine mountain tunnels of the layout are what make it special to collectors.“This is a factory-built layout made by the Lionel toy train company at their factory in Irvington, N.J.,” Dow explained. “Less than 50 of these factory layouts are in existence, especially in good condition.”An original advertisement for the train set’s layout is reproduced on the museum wall behind its new custom cabinet and glass-skirted frame. The ad was actually directed at the store owner and listed the layout’s price at $198. The trains were not included, and stores would pull Lionel engines and cars from their inventories to complete the Santa-ready display.The price would include “quite a few more zeroes” today, Dow said.Lionel trains date to 1900 and are still being made, though their heyday as a child’s must-have toy has passed.“Every boy in the 1950s in America either wanted a Lionel train set, a catcher’s mitt or a bicycle,” Dow said. Of course, train fascination had no gender limits.“I can remember as a kid coming in to see the tree on Christmas morning and seeing something like this,” said Leonard, recalling how she and her sisters had trains of their own. “We had a long history of having seen these before.”The Leonard train set was displayed for a while in Dow’s Train Station, next door to Dow Art Galleries on Camp Bowie Boulevard. Dow operated the model train shop for 20 years, until 1996.That was the year that his repair specialist, David Gonzales, died. Dow didn’t want to close the store, but without Gonzales, he couldn’t keep up with the demand for train repairs.He was forced to hang up his vintage engineer’s hat for good.It was difficult to finally give up ownership of the Leonard trains and layout, Dow said, but there are perks.“I think probably I can come in here anytime I want and play with trains,” Dow said, casting a glance in the direction of museum curator Lauren Leonard, great-granddaughter of Obie Leonard, Marvin Leonard’s brother and business partner.“Only if I can wear your hat,” she teased.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins