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A hobby for all ages

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The chance that you could walk into a toy store and find something to please both an 80-year-old man and his 10-year-old grandson is pretty slim.

After all, Grandpa isn't going to have much interest in newfangled gadgets or electronic devices, and Timmy may be even less enthusiastic about a set of wooden dominoes or a classic deck of cards.

But you'll no doubt make their faces light up if you send them down one specific aisle in that store -- the one displaying toy trains.

"Every time people see trains, they love them. There's a lot of oohs and aahs," Gary Johnson said.

Johnson is a member of the Gandy Dancers Train Club, which has been giving people an opportunity to see a holiday-themed train display at the St. James Hotel each December for the past several years.

By setting up the displays, club members get a front row seat to see enthusiastic reactions when people stop by. It's the young kids, member Jerry Dooley said, that get the most awestruck by the trains.

"They just seem to want to stick around forever," he said.

Still, the older crowd isn't immune to the excitement either.

"We find many of the adults fascinated as well because it brings back memories," Dooley added. "And that's why it's so much fun."

There is still one opportunity left -- noon to 3 p.m. Saturday -- for people to see what all the fuss is about before the annual display is taken down. Even those who have come in the past can look forward to a new setup because it's never the same as the year before.

"Every year the display has grown in participation and in the number of trains that we have running," Dooley said.

For the first time since it began, the Gandy Dancers holiday display features a G scale train, which is as large as model railroads get.

"A lot of people would use them out in their yards," club member Leonard Guggenberger described of their size.

The G scale model runs on the floor of the St. James Hotel's Hiawatha Room while many O and HO scale trains ride the tracks on platforms above it. Visitors can see everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to the Polar Express to the Amtrak train, in addition to models of real life trains that traveled prominent routes like the Milwaukee Road.

There's more to observe than simply the trains, however. Creative winter scenes complete with snow-covered churches, icy ponds and tall evergreens create lively villages through which the railroads travel.

"That demonstrates some of the artistic capability of some of our members," Dooley noted.

For as much as people enjoy viewing the display, the Gandy Dancers enjoy putting it together even more.

Whether they prefer painting trains, doing electrical work, building tables or arranging scenery, they all have something to get excited about when it comes to trains.

"It's for all walks of life," Johnson said.

One of the best parts about collecting model trains, a couple of members agreed, is that it's an ever-changing hobby.

Different engines can be paired with different individual cars, and nearly every model comes in various sizes. Many of the Gandy Dancers have setups in their own homes and are constantly adding to them.

Guggenberger's layout features saw mills and log loaders, among other things, but it's never entirely finished.

"It's almost like being somebody that does flower gardening, how they're always rearranging things and changing things. That's what a toy train nut is all about," he said with a laugh.

When they aren't playing with trains in their own homes, the Gandy Dancers get together and create dioramas at the Red Wing Senior Center.

"Those are permanent displays that we have been continually working on for the past seven to 10 years," Dooley said, adding that people are more than welcome to stop by and see the trains while club members work on them Wednesday afternoons.

Organizing train displays, particularly the holiday setup, is exactly what gives the group of longtime collectors the chance to share their love of trains with others -- many of whom feel a little bit of that love for themselves.

"People like trains," Johnson put it simply.

"You can have an argument with someone and show them a train and you're not arguing anymore, you're talking trains."

If you go

What: Gandy Dancers holiday train display

When: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday Dec. 15

Where: Hiawatha Room of the St. James Hotel, 406 Main St.

Cost: Free