Local railroad enthusiast Dick Painter lives between Bascom and Fostoria, not far from the CSX tracks. In addition, he has laid out a half-mile of 7 1/2-inch track on his property to run live steam engines he has built. The rails were humming Saturday when members of the Northwest Ohio Live Steamers converged at the Painter home for a day of mini-railroading.
"We've had the track here for 10 years or so. People bring their own. They have trailers or trucks that they bring and unload here," Painter said.
After retiring from Seneca Wire 17 years ago, he had more time to devote to his longtime hobby. In the mid-1970s, Painter and a group of railroaders from the area started the NOLS club in Maumee.
Now it has about 20 members, some with gas-powered and electric machines.
"We should change our name, I guess, to 'Outside Railroad' or something," Painter said. "We meet at different track sites, and our first meeting is at our place here. The guys start getting here around 10 o'clock and get organized. Then we have to eat. Then they run awhile and stop to eat some more."
Although Painter stores his trains for the winter in a long shed, the tracks stay in place all year. He said it was about a three-year project to install the rails that circle a field, pass through a shed, cross a couple of trestles and surround a pond.
Snowmobilers have damaged the line from time to time, and recently, someone drove a car on the tracks.
By afternoon, about a dozen locomotives were making their way around Painter's course. An elevated loading ramp that slants down to ground level makes it easy to transfer the trains from a trailer or truck bed to the rails. Although gas-fired and electric models can be started right away, a steam operator must fill the boiler with water and get a fire going to produce steam at the proper pressure.
Painter already had one of his steam engines ready to roll.
"I bought it partially built and I finished it," he explained.
Having an engine is more fun if it has rail cars to pull behind it. Painter said the wheel assemblies, called "trucks," can be purchased already constructed or a hobbyist can buy the parts and machine them to the desired size. Boxcars and cabooses can be crafted out of wood, and some members have mounted metal tanks on trucks to make gondolas.
Some cars are designed specifically for riders.
Each club member has added his touches to his rolling stock.
Nate Brinkman of Oregon, Ohio, has been in the club 12 years and had brought his electric industrial locomotive. Dennis Goodman and his son Matthew of Newport, Mich., have built their own trains. Matthew works with full-size locomotives every day as the roundhouse foreman at Greenfield Village. Dennis has hosted gatherings on the track at his home.
"I started in 1974 and it took me nine years to get it built and running," Dennis said. "We usually take just one (locomotive) with us, and he wanted to take his today. ... This is his stress relief, working on this, because he works on big equipment all the time."
Walt Holz of Oak Harbor, who serves as secretary-treasurer for the club, had brought a steam locomotive he had been working on for 33 years. Last week, he finally had it operating for the first time.
Gherin Johnston of Swanton had hauled in a diesel electric train he had built from scratch at a cost of about $2,000. Using a 1 1/2-inch scale, he had to enlarge the locomotive slightly so the diesel engine would fit inside the housing.
"There was a pair of them in Bellevue, Ohio, at the museum, and I went down there for about six months, every weekend, to measure it up. I got the measurements for it and scaled them down. It took me eight years to build it," Johnston said. "As far as I know, it's the only one in the country like it."
A club member since 1981, Johnston built a 3/4-mile track at his home. He also has taken his engines to Arizona, Florida, Michigan and numerous sites in Ohio.
Mark and Carmen Reigel of Sycamore also have a layout that measures about 3,000 feet and includes an 85-foot trestle. Mark spent five or six years to build, and he plans to expand it.
"It's an ongoing project. ... I'm constantly adding," Mark said. "And the grandkids (ages 1 and 5) love it."
The Reigels also enjoy taking their equipment to other locations and sharing stories and tips with other hobbyists. They said a group from Sandusky has visited their track several times because they are hoping to install a layout at an Erie County park. Mark has built about 30 rail cars and an electric locomotive with air brakes.
He said building the trains is "more fun than anything."
Charlie Fair of Jeromesville said he worked on "the big line" for a few years, but now he prefers to run his five small-scale engines. Now retired, he has been a railroader since 1953. The owner of five engines, Fair said he also is building a British-style locomotive.
Saturday, he was feeding what looked like dowel rods into the boiler of his steam engine. Fair said it was the second locomotive he had built from the same set of plans, and he is working on a third.
Fair lives near an Amish buggy builder who gives him the trimmings from the wooden spokes. The pieces are a good fit for the firebox. After blowing air through the engine, he still could not get it moving.
"This thing is giving me fits. Nobody up here understands the valve gear on this. It's from Louisiana, and they don't have this style of valve gear up here," Fair said. "Tomorrow, we get a boiler check to be sure the boiler will be safe for another year. Our club has one person that checks it, along with two witnesses. They check it with 150 pounds of pressure."
After inspection, the owner receives a certificate for each unit. Fair said every club requires members and guests to present a current certificate to ensure the safety of operators, riders and spectators.
Another safety measure is the use of "straddle cars." Riders sit with one foot on each side of the train.
"That's what our club requires. If you're going to tip, you can put your foot on the ground real quick and catch yourself. ... We can't afford an accident," Fair said.
Indeed. The main goal of live steam is fun, with bits of education and appreciation in the mix, members said.