A few years ago Mike Speltz came across a rare Lionel toy train car offered for sale by a fellow collector.
Speltz, who lives in Coon Rapids, immediately recognized it as something that once belonged to his dad.
It was easy to pick out because it read “SAR Lines,” the combined initials of his grandfather Stan, dad Art and uncle Robert. Many of his dad’s pieces had been sold after Art Speltz died in 1978, so it seemed like serendipity.
“I remember being overjoyed and I had a hard time containing my excitement,” Mike Speltz said.
The connection was made, and the Lakes and Pines Division of the Train Collectors Association, a national organization that goes back to 1969, made it possible, he said.
This Sunday the Lakes and Pines group, of which Speltz is a member like his dad before him, is hosting a toy train show and swap meet at Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights, its home base.
At the event, 50 collectors will display all kinds of toy trains, from entry-level models to rare collectibles. Also, a miniature railroad with running trains will be set up on the stage, at just the right height for the show’s youngest visitors.
St. Paul resident Al Osterud, a longtime member of the club, said the event is a chance for toy train enthusiasts of all ages to mingle and talk shop.
Some collectors from the club will be on hand to answer questions about toy trains, such as how to maintain them or what it takes to get a parent’s or a grandparent’s old train set back into working order.
Osterud, who is 70, received his first toy train at the age of 6. He remembers clearing off part of the bookshelf in his room as a 10-year-old to make way for his train collection.
Like Speltz, he’s nostalgic about the trains he had back then, particularly those made by Louis Marx and Co.
When people get older, “They tend to collect what they had as a child, or what they wanted as a child but didn’t have,” he said.
Some people, called “operators,” get a charge from running toy trains, while others go for a specific make and model, or they acquire replicas of real trains just to look at them, he said.
In recent years, souped-up trains that resemble early toy trains — but are way more advanced — have come to the market.
These have “computerized sounds and exotic stuff we never dreamed of having as a kid,” he said, adding that they can get pricey.
Whatever the niche interest, the club welcomes anyone who loves trains, he said.
‘A joyous type of thing’
In the Lakes and Pines Division, the vast majority of the 120 members are baby boomers or older, with a small number in their 40s.
At one time the club was more than double that size, according to Steve Sekely, the group’s president. It has long been male-dominated, probably because it was more common for boys to get toy trains.
Despite the dwindling numbers of toy train hobbyists, Sekely, a Chanhassen resident, said it’s encouraging to see young people come into his store in Hopkins, called Steve’s Train City.
He constantly has to clean a small window in his store because it will be full of greasy noseprints — proof that “when I’m not there, people are always trying to see through that window” to catch a glimpse of the train layouts.
Looking at beautiful toy trains is a small pleasure. For him and many other collectors, “We love them for what they are,” he said. “Everything has a value in life, but we think of it as a joyous type of thing.”
Brooklyn Park resident Jackie Palmgren, 65, whose dad, Cornell Wing, was a founder of the group, agreed.
Palmgren, who was always exposed to trains thanks to her dad, was one of the group’s first female members in 1974. Today she’s still in the minority, but at her shop, Osseo Sports Train World, she frequently meets other women who are fond of toy trains.
She has a number of running trains set up at the store, which is especially fun at Christmas, when more families come in. “Kids get mesmerized by it,” she said, adding, “It reminds me of the old days.”
When children buy trains, she tells them to hold onto their collections for forever. “If I had a dollar for every time someone said they wished they still had their trains, I could’ve retired a long time ago,” she said.
As for Speltz, his dad’s tank car has a special place on a shelf in his basement, alongside other pieces from the period between 1945 and 1969.
And Speltz is keeping an eye out for other parts of the “SAR Lines.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.