By CAROL SOUTH
TRAVERSE CITY -- For aficionados, the annual Festival of Trains is a celebration of railroad history and lore brought to life in miniature.
Kicking off Saturday at the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, the annual event runs through New Year's Day and will showcase extensive displays of model trains in the N, HO, S, O and G scales. Northern Michigan Rail Road Club presents the festival to both share trains with enthusiasts and captivate a new generation.
"What our club does we don't know any other club in the United States that puts on a train show that is interactive," said event co-conductor Rick Vandenberg of Fife Lake, who worked for six years at C&O; railroad in Grand Rapids. "We tell the kids, 'Don't touch the trains but you can press the buttons.'"
Volunteers from the club will be setting up extensive exhibits this week and then staffing them in shifts throughout the festival. Coupled with hours of work taking down the show and repairing, upgrading and changing it for next year, the endeavor is a labor of love.
"It is work but to see the smiles on the kids that we get every year, it's unbelievable," Vandenberg said.
This year's Festival of Trains will be dedicated to Dave Walker, who helped found the event in the early 1990s. Walker died Nov. 27 at the age of 63.
The Festival of Trains will also feature a workshop on "Scenery 101: A Look at Basic Techniques for Turning Trains Sets into Model Railroads" presented by Peter Magoun, owner of Trains & Things Hobbies in Traverse City. Dave Capron, of Suttons Bay, will also talk about rock casting during this class from 1 to 3 p.m. on Dec. 28. Held in partnership with the Grand Traverse Heritage Center for the sixth year, the Festival of Trains is the major annual fundraiser for the nonprofit history organization. Festival organizers hope to draw 10,000 visitors over the event's almost three weeks. Last year, the event drew 8,000 attendees from the region and beyond, raising $25,000 for programs, exhibits and general operating costs.
"The Festival of Trains is such a huge part of holiday celebrations, we've been getting calls from Chicago and Kalamazoo," said Patti DeAgostino, executive director of the Grand Traverse Heritage Center. "You can't say it's just for kids, it's for everyone. Trains are an important part of history in Traverse City -- bring out the trains and you bring out anyone."
The Festival of Trains runs from Saturday through Jan. 1 at the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, 322 Sixth St. in Traverse City. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays and on Dec. 24 and 31 and January 1, the festival is open from noon to 4 p.m. The festival is closed Christmas Day.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for students and free for children under three; the popular family pass is again available and offers unlimited visits for $25
For more information on the festival or the Heritage Center, call 995-0313. For more information on the Northern Michigan Rail Road Club, see www.nmrrc.org.