Above: James and Sally Bando build and operate ‘garden scale’ model train layouts both inside and outside their home. SPECIAL

At first, Sally Bando wasn’t really all that excited by model trains. That was her husband’s hobby. She liked sewing and craftwork. She started making some train-based memorabilia – T-shirts or tote bags or baby bibs stitched with sayings like “Grandpa loves trains and me” – to sell so she could stay busy when she accompanied her husband James to model train shows.

Then, during a show at Dalton a dozen years ago, everything changed. That’s when Sally saw her first “Garden scale” steam trains. They didn’t look like the models in her basement. These were bigger and built so they could be used outside. Engines puffed clouds of steam. “When I saw it, it was like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to have it,” she said. What got her attention? “The noise – chugga, chugga, chugga! I looked at it and said, ‘That’s a train you can play with.’”

Now the Bandos keep two G Gauge trains, complete with working steam engines, regularly chugging inside their home or along 350 feet of track built into a 45-by-25-foot deck that once surrounded an above-ground swimming pool in their yard in Woodstock. These days, James tends the trains and Sally builds the buildings that surround the tracks in their layout, which they call the Grand Western Mining Company.

James Bando walks alongside one of the engines on his outdoor model railroad.

Sally Bando also serves as director of operations for the Piedmont Division of the National Model Railroad Association. The club includes more than 400 model railroaders who live from Dalton to Clayton County, its Superintendent Walt Liles said, and the national organization claims 18,000 members.

To hear model railroaders talk, theirs is a hobby centered on old men. Many members of the Piedmont Division are aged 60 or older, Liles said, and Sally Bando joked that she’s one of perhaps three women in the club. Different collectors build different types and sizes of model railroads. Some layouts present historically accurate images of specific trains or times while others mix a grab-bag of styles. And modelers are dedicated to their trains. Many spend several hours every day or week tending their layouts and some admit they spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on the hobby.

In past years, the Piedmont Division club has offered tours of the trains in members’ homes. This year’s tour has been cancelled because of concerns about social distancing in the face of COVID-19, so the club is planning an online tour in October and November. For more information, go to piedmontpilgrimage.com.

Sally and James Bando’s layout has been on past tours and they expect to be on the virtual tour this year. Unlike his wife, James, a 66-year-old retired software engineer, is no newcomer to model trains. “Ever since I was 6 years old, I’ve always had one,” he said. In addition to the couple’s outdoor G gauge train, he has a smaller-scale train in his basement. “It’s just exciting to me,” he said. “It’s exciting to run.”

He likes putting the trains together, too. “It’s fun working on them after you build them, but the most fun is building them and seeing something you built with your own hands … We’re always building over here.”

Brian Glock of Roswell also keeps building onto his model railroad. The 79-year-old retired New York policeman, a master model railroader, said he’s owned train layouts since he was a kid. He works with HO models, which are the most popular size model trains and use cars much smaller than the garden-scale ones.

“I’ve been interested in it all my life,” Glock said one recent morning as he worked on a new building that could end up on the 15-foot-by-27-foot train layout he estimates takes up about a third of his basement. He says he has 80 locomotives and a couple of hundred freight cars in his collection.

“It keeps you sharp. There’s carpentry [required], there’s electrical, there’s mechanical.” And newer parts are all digital, he said, so he must keep up with the times. But the strongest attraction of the hobby now, he said, is social. “I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said. “We’ve become fast friends for almost 20 years.”

Like many other HO model train fans, Glock has built his layout to recreate a specific time and place. In his case, his trains come from 1950 to 1955 and represent the fictional L&N and Southern Railroad in western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. “I needed an imaginary place to set my railroad,” he said. “It makes it plausible.”

Liles, the Piedmont Division’s 55-year-old superintendent (the club takes its titles from the ways railroad companies were organized), says he got interested in trains, the real ones, when he was a boy. “I was fascinated by trains,” he said. “When I felt that power, I was hooked. … It was something about the horsepower, the strength of the locomotive, the skill, the weight.”

He got a taste of that power in the 1970s, when his dad worked for a south Georgia company that made vegetable oil. He accompanied his father to work and watched the trains load the oil and move cars of it around.  Sometimes, he could catch a ride. “I’d bring my lunch with me and ride with the train crew,” he said.

Liles got his first model train set at age 6 and got his first HO set when he was about 8. He stayed with it, and these days, he said, his model train set fills a room in his home and features something like 1,500 cars. He calls his imaginary line, based on the Southern Railway, the Saluda Central Railroad.

Charlie Crawford of eastern Cobb County bases his HO layout on the New York Central Railroad as it would have appeared in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York in either 1927 or 1952. He switches them out, based on which period he wants to replicate. The main difference between the two, he said, is the introduction of diesel locomotives.

The 69-year-old retired facilities manager, who was born in Brooklyn and lived in New Jersey for 23 years until his job brought him to Atlanta, wants his trains to be accurate historically. “I’ve always enjoyed history and it’s a good way to make history come alive,” he said. “The railroads were certainly a big part of what built this country.”

He has another interest in model railroading: playing with others. He’s part of a group of modelers called Atlanta Interlocking Model Railroaders who build modular HO layouts that connect with layouts made by other club members. “I like to build things,” he said. “I’ve always been a model-maker, even when I was a kid. I’m a builder.”

His layout now can handle up to 125 locomotives at once. With the interlocking railroaders, he said, he and his fellow modelers can build layouts that can handle 425 engines. Often, they fill a church gym with a single layout. “Walking with your train around the layout took a 45-minute walk,” he said.

The 44-foot-by-22-foot “garden scale” model train layout Russell and Leslie Ann Bundy display at their Marietta home doesn’t leave their yard.

They installed the layout iwhen they had to replant after a tornado blew  through a few years ago. Now they have can run model trains on tracks laid among the hundreds of azaleas, hostas and other plants in their garden.

Their model trains depict ones designed to carry people, for the most part, Russell said. “I do have a freight train,” he said, “but we don’t like freight trains that much. We do mostly passenger trains.”

What keeps them tending model trains day after day? It means they stay busy doing something they enjoy, Russell said, and “in case something like the coronavirus happens to hit, you don’t have to go anywhere.”

“It’s a retirement hobby,” said the 68-year-old who worked for 37 years at Lockheed Martin in Marietta. “You can work on it, but you don’t have to work on it.

“We’re out there a little bit every day.  … It gets us out of the house.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.