We were steered toward Don MacCormack by a tip from a reader who thought we would enjoy learning and sharing about the model railroad Christmas layout he does each year. We set out on that mission, with full intention of bringing you this feature in time for Christmas 2014. At the time of our Postcards interview, Don was in the process of constructing a larger, permanent model railroad layout. We were so entranced and intrigued by this effort, we decided to delay the publishing of the feature until we could include photos of that finished project! We hope you agree it was worth the wait.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in New York City. My wife Junie is from here, the Huntsville and Madisonville area. I have a son and a daughter. My son lives in New Jersey, and my daughter lives in Virginia. My wife has four daughters. Three of them live here, and one lives in Atascosita.
Tell us about your career.
I went to work for the Bell Telephone Laboratories out of high school. They put me through school, and I got my engineering degree. Then my first job was the New York World’s Fair in 1964-1965. I was responsible for inspecting all of the underground electrical work at the fair. I worked for quite a while for an engineering firm in New York. They then sent me to Washington, D.C. to manage the coordinated drawings for the construction of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. From there, I was recruited by CRS, a Houston firm. I lived in Spring from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. When they recruited me, they brought me down in March. They never mentioned it would be 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity in the summers! They then moved me back to NYC to manage the Merrill Lynch World Headquarters in downtown Manhattan and later the Department of Transportation headquarters building in Washington, D.C. Then, just before I retired, I was doing the Samsung headquarters in Seoul, Korea. So I traveled quite a bit. I did a lot of work in Saudi Arabia and all over the world. Then in 1995, when the court mandated major changes in the Texas Prison System, I came down and headed the Emergency Prison Bed Program. We put in about 40,000 beds in six months.
I’ve always loved trains. When I was a youngster, the first thing my dad got me for Christmas was a train set. My brother was also into it for quite a while when he was a teenager. For a long time, when I was working and traveling, the trains just sat on the shelf. It was later, when we had space, and I had time, that love rekindled.
I came to Huntsville in 1995 to do some prison work, and I met my current wife. Junie and I moved down here permanently in 1999. We moved into our current house in 2004. One reason we bought it was the large detached storage room, which is ideal for storing and setting up the trains. It was then that I got the idea to do a Christmas train layout. It started on a 4×8 piece of plywood, then it was 6×8, then it was 6×12, then it was 6×16. It just kept growing. We always have a Christmas party…sometimes two…and the kids love to come (and the adults, too!) But I’m the one who really loves it. That’s how I got started with the Christmas layout. Lionel has just come out with a new LionChief controller that’s just about kid-proof. You can’t do anything wrong. You can’t run the train too fast. So it’s great. The kids love running the trains when they come out at Christmas. I also have a Halloween layout with special trains I do for Halloween.
When I retired in around 2011, I started going to train shows. I’ve always wanted to have a permanent layout—a real nice layout—so in 2014, I contracted with a Dallas firm, TW TrainWorx, that I met at a train show. My wife and I used to…well, I used to go to many of them. Junie made one! She’s not really into trains. She went to a show with me in Denver. The guy with this firm from Dallas, Roger Farkash, offered a model mountain building class I went to, so I began talking to him. I told him I wanted to have the layout, but I didn’t have the time or expertise to create it on my own, because it’s going to be about 20×30, but neither did I want to do it without participating. So with the training from the class, I carved the mountains and did a lot of other things, and they did the lion’s share of the work. I went up once a week, sometimes for a couple of days, and worked on mountains and other aspects. I then asked my niece, Jennifer Hughes from Onalaska, to custom paint the landscape backgrounds on the walls to give the layout a more realistic look.
It took me three full days to carve the large mountain and a day for the smaller one. Of course, I had help from Roger with his expertise, and then there are a lot of different coatings to apply and trees, and such. It basically can take about a month. Of course, I was getting faster as I went along.
Did you still have pieces from when you were young, or did you have to start from scratch?
I still have some pieces from the late 1940s my dad bought, and some from my brother in the 1950s because he didn’t have a place to keep them. I have that entire collection and have just added to it over the years.
And what gauge is this?
This is Lionel “O” gauge, but there are some large pieces on the Christmas display which are “G” gauge.
Are there area clubs of train collectors?
There are no clubs in Huntsville. Conroe has a club, but it is “HO” scale collectors. You really have to get into the Houston area to find nearby clubs. I belong to two nationwide clubs, the Lionel Collectors Club of America and the Train Collectors Association.
And where do you purchase your items and supplies? Are there local retailers?
I do most of my purchases online. There are several large Internet retailers. I mostly use Charles Ro, out of Malden, Massachusetts. Online and train shows are my primary sources. There are shows every month, all over the country. There are usually about two a year in Houston.
What is something most people probably don’t know about model trains?
The electronics they put in the trains now are amazing. The trains talk to each other; the engineer talks to the tower; the tower responds to the engineer. And the noise when the train starts, it’s just like a real train. Our generation had a bell and a whistle, and maybe a little smoke coming out the top. Now, you’ve got steam coming out the sides of the engine. The realism today is just incredible!
For people who may be interested, is this an affordable hobby?
Well, as with any hobby, you can spend as little or as much as you want! Train sets can cost as little as $150 or up to $3000 just for an engine! For serious collectors, it’s not cheap. It’s definitely more expensive than my golf hobby!
Is this a hobby for the older generation, or is there interest among younger people?
When you attend the shows, I would have to say the majority of folks are in their fifties and sixties. But, you do see an increasing number of younger folks attending. And there are some junior clubs that are active. A lot of young people are more interested in the video game-type experience; however, I think it’s hard to beat the thrill of the actual hands-on interaction. But, obviously, the exposure for children is not like it was back when I was a child. When the grandchildren come over, they absolutely love the trains. But most children have never seen any before!
What do you enjoy most about it?
I like to run the trains. Some collectors want to be like engineers…they want to switch tracks, and back the engine up, and connect to cars…I like to run the trains. I told the firm in designing my permanent layout that I want you to put as many tracks on so I can run as many trains at once. So, I’ve got two on the upper level, I’ve got eight on the base level, and I’ve got two more on the lower subway level. Some people could spend ten years building a permanent layout like mine and do all the work themselves. I don’t have ten years, and I don’t enjoy the painstaking building like some people do. I want to participate, but I’m getting mine done in six months, so I can get on with enjoying it. Some people don’t even want to run the trains; they just want them to sit so they can look at them. If I wear mine out, then I wear mine out! I like to run the trains.
And I’ve made friends all over the country, other train enthusiasts. And we talk all the time. It’s great to relate and commiserate.
And Junie supports you in your hobby?
She tolerates it. I told Junie, “I really want to do this.” She said, “Well, then go do it! You only live once.”