NORTHFIELD – As a kid growing up here, Thomas Luetzow knew what it meant when he heard a steam engine’s whistle echo across the Cannon River Valley. It was always the second weekend of October, a signal from local resident Jim Machacek that he had fired up his backyard train.
“The whole town would hear that whistle and come running,” said Luetzow, one of thousands of kids over four decades who rode the train cars on a lap the size of a football field.
First-time visitors might have been excused for rubbing their eyes when stepping into Machacek’s backyard: He had steam engines, along with one gasoline and one diesel engine, train cars, a replica train depot, an actual depot from Claremont., Minn., narrow-gauge tracks that ran out across a field and back, and numerous other bits of stagecraft to recreate the lost era of 1800s rail travel.
“It was his passion,” said Machacek’s son Dave of Northfield.
Since Jim’s death four years ago, it’s been unclear what would happen to his beloved trains. His sons don’t have the time to maintain them. The trains he collected were exceedingly rare, including a pair of steam engines from World War II-era Czechoslovakia and Germany that ran on narrow-gauge rails.
It wasn’t until two years ago that the perfect buyer stepped forward: Silver Dollar City, a theme park in Branson, Mo., that gives steam engine rides on a 2-mile track to 800,000 visitors annually. The park already has three engines, including two that are nearly identical to Machacek’s.
After months of negotiations and planning, a thrilled group of Silver Dollar City employees showed up at Machacek’s house on Wednesday with a heavy-equipment moving crew to pick up their purchases.
“These are pretty rare, especially steam engines on 2-foot gauge,” said Jon Williams, the maintenance manager at Silver Dollar City. As he spoke, workers were preparing to lift the first of two engines they bought, a 1938 Orenstein & Koppel German-built steam engine. It was trucked to a shop in Pennsylvania where it will undergo a complete restoration before it’s sent to Branson.
It was the second engine, a Czechoslovakian-built Ceskomoravska Kolben Danek from 1941, that was Machacek’s most heavily used.
As a kid he was fascinated by trains, lingering near the Northfield railroad depot until the engineers let him step inside one. His favorite was Engine 504 of the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway, said son Dave.
“The story goes that they let him drive it,” he said.
When he bought the Czech engine in 1967, he dubbed it the “504,” making a dinner plate-sized medallion with the number on it that he mounted on the engine’s front.
His son Brian Machacek remembered this week when the 504 Engine showed up in the family yard. His father, an engineer, was replacing pipes in the engine and had Brian crawl inside it. While his father tapped on the new pipes from one end, Brian used his hand to feel when the pipes were in position.
Once the train was functioning properly, he started his annual tradition of inviting the town over for free rides. He never sold tickets, and over the years he gave some 50,000 rides, according to friends.
Engine 504 will go into service next year after a complete overhaul of its boiler, said Williams, of Silver Dollar City. It’s expected to run for 10,000 to 20,000 miles a year.
Watching about a dozen men Wednesday as they carted off Machacek’s steam engines, Kari Alberg, Machacek’s daughter-in-law, said she’s still amazed by the ingenuity it took to have created the backyard railroad.
“He took on things that most people would never imagine, and he made it look easy,” she said.