Steve Jobs was known to say, “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.” For one man, the lockdown in March and the following months of isolation during COVID-19 was his opportunity for ingenuity and innovation. Meet Jim Meyer of Spring Valley, Minn., who has a passion for model railroading. He started model railroading 23 years ago, and would buy kits to build his town layouts. Once he started living on Social Security, it became financially unrealistic for Meyer to keep buying kits for the buildings of his layouts. “To build this layout, I said, ‘Man, I can’t be paying $50 for one building.’” So Meyer would go to Rochester to the Everything Hobby shop and find building supplies there. “I could buy plastic sheets of corrugated tin, clapboard siding, I could buy windows, I could buy doors, which was much cheaper. So that’s how I built this last layout. There is not a store bought kit on the whole layout, I built it all from scratch.”
With just a hobby knife, a square, and plenty of paints and brushes, Jim Meyer created a colorful town with buildings inspired by his youth and career. The blue building on the layout was inspired by his truck terminal in Superior, Wis. Jim Meyer was an over the road truck driver for 42 years, and driving through the desert southwest was where he would watch trains. “The train tracks usually follow the highway, and well, I would get out there and I’d be going 60-65 miles/hr and here comes this freight train passing me. I started watching them go over the mountains and see how much slower they would go. You know, it would take four or five engines to push a freight train over the Rocky Mountains.
Each diesel unit is 2,500 horsepower, and when you get five of those… that’s a lot of horsepower to push a train over the mountains!” The town layout includes a tall grain elevator building that his model trains pass by. About the grain elevator Meyer said, “That is my pride and joy. That’s the first thing I built here in this scale. That took six sheets of plastic corrugated tin to build that.” Part of the grain elevator looks unfinished, but Meyer wanted it that way. “I wanted to build a new entrance way for unloading grain. I didn’t have enough little pieces of basswood to finish it, so I thought, ‘I’ll build what I can and make the rest look like it’s under construction.’” The end product looks highly realistic, and it includes a circular foundation for another grain bin. Modeling from a kit means you have all the necessary pieces to begin with, but Meyer built the current layout from scratch and he had to use plenty of ingenuity to finish the pieces. The grain bin is actually an old V8 juice can, and the red barn uses PVC pipe with a plastic sheet of brick wrapped around it that was painted. The truck carrying hay bales used to be a fire truck, so Meyer took off the tank part and built a flat bed for the hay bales to sit on. The sky background was a blue bedsheet from Walmart that a lady from his apartment building sewed end to end, and then Meyer took spray cans of gray and white to paint clouds on it while it was hanging on the clothesline. Two weeks ago Meyer finished the Choo-Choo bar which depicts an actual bar and diner in Superior, Wis. The business labels came from a variety of places. “I got the Bud Light sticker from a bottle of beer. The Coca-Cola – I cut that out of a magazine. The John Deere sticker for my dealership came from your newspaper.”
Each building has a history and a story attached to it. One of the homes along the track was based off an Amish house north of Canton. “My sister would take her horses to that Amish gentleman to have him trim the hooves and put on new shoes, and he built a brand new house and that’s exactly what it looked like.” Another home along the tracks is what Meyer can remember of his childhood home. “This house kind of depicts the farmhouse we lived in when I lived in Iowa with my folks. I was born in Lake City, Iowa, and in fourth grade we moved to Spring Valley, Minn.”
The town is a perfect blend of nostalgia and inventiveness. Reflecting on his start, Meyer shared, “Being older, and living here, I want to do more than just look out that window. I moved in here last January 1st, and I started on this in March when we got locked down. I called my brother-in-law, who has a pickup, and I said, ‘I’m going to build a model train layout; I need something to do because I’m stuck.’” So Meyer went to Menards and bought all the 1x4s he needed and 2x2s for the legs, and he bought 1⁄4-inch plywood for the table top. After bringing it home, Meyer brought all the pieces outdoors and cut them there so sawdust wouldn’t be all over his apartment. Once assembled, his sister and brother-in-law asked, “Jim, how are you ever going to get it out of here?” Jim replied, “That will be your problem. This is the last place I’m going to live. I really like my apartment and the people here are so friendly it’s unbelievable.”
After showing all the details of his incredible town, Jim shared the trains that run on his tracks. Most of the trains he bought came from flea markets, rummage sales, and auction houses. Oftentimes Meyer would have to take the trains apart and rebuild them so the lights would turn on and the sound would work. His favorite train came from a complete box set from a hobby shop on Lexington Ave. in St. Paul. It came with three other cars, a caboose, all the track and the remote control, and it’s called the Philadelphia Flyer. Once Jim flips the switch, the headlight from the Philadelphia shines bright and the whistle starts blowing. The pistons hiss and begin to turn, and the train makes all the sounds a person would hear in real life. Meyer has a big smile on his face watching it go. “That sound just drives me nuts!”
When asked how does it feel to build things from memory and see things come to life, Meyer smiled. “It’s a good feeling. A lot of people say, ‘What, are you a kid?’ I guess I am. They might say, ‘Do you have a screw loose, you play with toys?’ I guess I got a screw loose, I play with toys.” Jim Meyer might play with toys, but his enthusiasm and originality is a model more people should follow through these uncertain times and in all times.