Popular Great Trains exhibit rumbles back into Wilton

WILTON — There’s wit and whimsy and surprising realism awaiting those who embark on the Great Trains exhibition at Wilton Historical Society, running “on schedule” through Jan. 20.

The train show is the society’s most popular annual attraction, drawing visitors from near and far during the holiday season. It is the work of a corps of dedicated “train men,” who spend weeks setting up more than half a dozen layouts with model trains of varying scales and vintages.

This year, Rich Fuhrman, Paul Lourd, John Perelstein and Brian Dobson were the main volunteers who cleaned the trains and tracks, inspected the wiring, connected the lights and buttons, and added new life to familiar scenes.

As he guided a tour of the exhibit, Fuhrman explained how he tries to change the layouts each year. One of the first that visitors encounter is an HO gauge setup that features detailed models of several Wilton buildings, including the Congregational Church, Old Town Hall, and, appropriately, the 19th-century train station.

A G-scale train puffs through a Christmas village and the O-scale American Flyer in another layout has roots in Connecticut. The A.C. Gilbert Company, of New Haven, manufactured the trains, along with other toys, including Erector sets, toy chemistry sets and magic sets.

There are also N- and S-gauge sets and Thomas the Tank Engine, popular among children, toots his way through Legoland.

While visitors are not allowed to touch the trains, there are plenty of buttons to push that turn on lights and blow horns, and operate accessories such as trolleys and cranes. In back, is a room where children can play with Brio sets.

Upstairs is an extensive winter village exquisite in its detail with sledders, skaters, swimming swans, couples dancing inside a home and skiers coming down a hill. There are no trains in this winter wonderland, but if you look closely, you can see Santa driving a team of tiny reindeer over the rooftops. The set was donated by historical society member Moira Craw.

Downstairs, Fuhrman explained the age of the trains vary with some as old as the 1940s and ‘50s to newer models from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of the cars are replicas of the New Haven line and there’s also a popular Amtrak train.

Many of the pieces on display are from his own collection, and some have been donated to the society over the years.

“A lot of the accessories are old,” he said. “Some were given to me. Ninety-nine percent of the vehicles were given to me as a boy.” The transformers, he added, are from the ‘50s.

There are some real antiques from the 1920s on display — not running — and there is also some beautiful train calendar art from the 1940s hanging on the wall.

“I had trains as a kid to my teens,” said Fuhrman, a retired New York City police officer who lives in Weston. “I took them out of the attic when we moved to Connecticut after retiring.”

Fuhrman saw a flyer seeking volunteers in 2013 “and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

While he’s building sets, Furhman tries to give a shout out to family and friends. For example, his father was a builder, so in one set a house is under construction. An army convoy pays homage to his sister-in-law, who served 20 years in the military.

There’s an ambulance setup and fire trucks donated by the Wilton Fire Department to honor EMS workers. One of the winter towns is named Bumpville in honor of the late Ivan Spangenberg, who his fellow train aficionados called “Bump.”

Fuhrman found a set of toy trucks in his mother’s attic he brought to the show. “It gives me the most joy to have others see them,” he said.

And if admiring the trains isn’t enough, visitors can go on a scavenger hunt looking for things that are out of place. After all, dinosaurs and Ghostbusters don’t really belong along the tracks, do they?

The trains are open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. The historical society is closed on Christmas and Monday to Wednesday next week, reopening on Jan. 2.

Admission to the show is free to members. For nonmembers, admission is $5 per child and $10 per adult. For more information, visit wiltonhistorical.org or call 203-762-7257.