Piermont Man Builds a World Out of Model Trains

By Dan Mackie

​​​​​For the Valley News

Published: 12-23-2018 2:38 PM

The glory days of model railroading are past, but the hobby hasn’t reached the end of the line.

Off the beaten track in Piermont, Bob Kivela has engineered what he believes is the longest home train display in New England. He recently opened the little wonder — some 60 feet long — for public visits. Last Saturday, he conducted adults and children through his setup for seven hours.

Grownups examine and admire the craftsmanship, then it’s all aboard for a return trip to childhood as a train chugs through towns and tunnels, over bridges and past green hills, reaching a train station on one end and a Christmas village on the other.

“I figure every railroad should have a Christmas scene,” Kivela said.

Children appreciate it too, he said. The young ones want to jog along with the O-gauge trains (a little larger than the well-known H.O. scale sets).

Kivela’s trains truly have the run of the place. He has knocked through a couple of walls and renovated attic space to accommodate them on the second floor of the farmhouse his wife, Wanda, grew up in.

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It has taken 20 years of painstaking work to create this display. Kivela paints the little human figures that aren’t much bigger than a thumbnail, along with train cars that carry the names of the Boston & Maine, Union Pacific, New Haven, Santa Fe and more. The trains pass cultural icons: a Coppertone billboard, a Coca-Cola sign. In one area, Kivela has created a drag-race scene inspired by his early years of working on cars and engines, and a Porsche dealership because he’s “a Porsche guy.”

One section has a roundhouse from the late Charlie Kelton’s large collection, once prominently displayed at his car dealership in Hartford.

All in all, it’s a downscaled world where everything is spick and span, and the paint is shiny and bright.

Taking such a vision from imagination to reality takes time and elbow grease. “It’s just a tremendous amount of work,” Kivela said. Even dusting it all is an effort; the electrified rails are dust magnets.

But that’s not a complaint. Said Kivela, “I like building the layout more than running trains, to be honest.”

Last Sunday, Kivela’s work attracted an especially appreciative pair of visitors: Nancy Moody and Richard Borkowski, of Haverhill, who have visited train museums, model shows and special displays as they traveled around the country. Borkowski, who is in his 50s, has a layout of his own, and fondly remembers his father’s train set. His grandfather worked for a railroad, so there’s family history there.

“Wow,” he called out as he took in Kivela’s set-up. Borkowski said it’s interesting to see what other hobbyists come up with.

“You look, and you get ideas,” he said.

“This is amazing,” said Moody.

And with only a little prompting Borkowski waxed nostalgic. “You kind of visit your childhood,” he said, and revisit history — the days when passenger trains rolled through the Upper Valley and train stations were bustling. He remembers when local retail stores often displayed model trains, especially at Christmas, and hobby shops were common in the region.

Borkowski said he thinks people might have been better off when they had such leisure pursuits; he wondered if they didn’t help keep them away from temptations such as drugs.

That’s conjecture, but the aging of model train hobbyists is not. The president of the National Model Railroad Association has calculated that the average age of its nearly 19,000 members is 64, up from 39 in the mid-1970s. That figure was reported in a 2016 Wall Street Journal story that flat-out stated, “Once thought of as every boy’s dream toy, model trains have become a domain mainly for old men.”

Model railroaders worry that video games and computer screens have lured young people away. They also note that relatively few youngsters have actually ridden on a passenger train. Not so long ago, rails were the way from small towns to New York, Chicago and other great cities. The tracks were celebrated in story and song.

Kivela is 69, though he looks at least a decade younger. When he was young, he also raced cars, for a time professionally, in such events as the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race and the Detroit Trans Am.

But “children and expenses” came along, Kivela said, and he left that behind.

His interest in trains goes back to his own childhood in Pennsylvania. He remembers his father putting a train track around the Christmas tree, and also a train trip to Bethlehem, Pa., at Christmastime.

He still attends train modeling shows, the size of which suggest there’s some steam left in the hobby. Some smaller regional shows have faded away, but the annual Amherst Railway Society show at the Big-E grounds in West Springfield, Mass., draws some 25,000 people.

Meanwhile, Kivela isn’t planning to retire from model railroading. It’s detail work, and one detail leads to another. In his words, “Your layout is never done.”

Call 603-272-5878 (before 9 p.m.) or email  r_kivela@yahoo.com for information about Kivela’s display, or to schedule a visit. Donations for expenses are accepted.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.