A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

A Little Change in Your Future

When I was in the third grade (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was in Cub Scouts. One of the badges I was working on required me to start and organize some kind of collection. Now it so happened that my dad owned a gas station in those days, and my mom would go to the bank for him a couple of times a week, to make deposits and get change for the station, including some coins. She was opening one of these newly-acquired rolls of nickels one day, when to her great surprise, she discovered that the entire roll was made up of Buffalo Nickels – forty of them, to be exact. She gave me that roll to use for my project, and we got one of those little blue coin folders.

And that was how my interest in coins and coin collecting began.

I tell you that story because I went to the grocery store the other day and got a little change back from my purchase. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that evening, when I was emptying my pockets, I discovered that I had received a Buffalo Nickel back as part of my change. It’s thoroughly worn down, and the date is pretty much unreadable – I think it’s 1930, but I can’t be sure – but that famous Native American profile still stares stoically on the front, and that beautiful, shaggy, American Bison still stands proudly on the back of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. The design actually began in 1911, as part of the Taft Administration’s efforts to beautify American coinage. Sculptor James E. Fraser received the commission to design the coin, and in spite of some objections, it went into production two years later. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful design, the coin was subject to premature wear and degradation. After the minimum 25-year circulation period, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which we still use today. However, Fraser’s design is still popular, and it has been used on various commemorative coins and some American gold pieces designed for collectors.

A 1937 “Buffalo Nickel.” The “F” under the date is for the designer, James Fraser, and the “D” under “Five Cents” indicates that it was minted in Denver.

So, who was the Native American whose portrait adorns this coin? Good question. Fraser himself gave several different accounts, but it seems most likely that it was patterned after a combination of two or three men.  Fraser was on record as saying once, “my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.” The American Bison on the rear was likely modeled after an animal in one of the zoos in New York City; again, Fraser’s story changed a few times – sometimes he said it was at the Bronx Zoo, sometimes at the Central Park Zoo.

Besides premature wearing, the coin had other problems. For some reason, the dies which were used to strike the blanks wore out at an unusually fast rate. Changes ordered by the mint to try and extend the life of the metal dies just made the problem worse. Even on newly minted coins, the date quickly rubbed off and became illegible; the “Five Cents” and other lettering was gone almost as fast. Nobody objected when the order to replace it was given.

But I just love this coin. When it was first released, it was praised for its bold American themes – the rugged Indian face and that majestic bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. It’s well-known that bison were hunted almost to extinction, and only through the dedicated efforts of ranchers and preservationists were they able to make a comeback, to be saved for future generations. There’s a lesson there, about the true spirit of America and never giving up.

Beyond that, finding that coin in my pocket the other day is a reminder of the little blessings that come our way, if we will take the time to notice and appreciate them. In this case, I received the blessings of recalling a sweet memory and an interesting little story and savoring a little patriotic pride.

Not bad for such a little coin.