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The Mobile Society of Model Engineers’ annual holiday display is hosted at The Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center through the end of the month.
There’s a lifelong love affair on display at the Gulf Coast Exploreum’s Scratch Factory, one that stretches almost to the Great Depression.
“I have the first model train I got when I was 4 years old and that train still runs, man,” Joaquin M. Holloway Jr., said. Old pals recalled his guarded ways with the prized gift.
“If I had let him play with it, it wouldn’t still be running because he would have wanted to see a wreck at a crossing or a derailment,” Holloway laughed.
The octogenarian isn’t just a former educator and local radio personality; he’s also a longtime member of the Mobile Society of Model Engineers (MSME), and eager to spread his love of railroads of all sizes. That swoon peaks for the holidays.
November is National Model Railroad Month. Holloway touts recent proclamations from the mayors of Semmes and Mobile stating the same for their cities. For December, MSME will reassemble its elaborate model railroad layout in the downtown science center at the foot of Government Street.
“We used to go in the mall for Thanksgiving but it was a pain to set up all those modules for a two-day run,” Holloway said. In 2007, they moved to the Mobile Museum of Art for a two-week run but were eventually squeezed out by a Mardi Gras exhibit, so in 2014 they turned to The Exploreum.
The 25-by-15-foot layout looks like a cohesive miniature world — buildings, train platforms, trees, landscape, even animals — but its realization was a group effort.
“Each member was responsible for building a module. We had to follow a certain measurement from the outside edge or from the outside mainline to the inside, and so far from the inside and then the brass line, but there was little continuity from one section to another,” Holloway noted.
The highly detailed creation is in HO scale (1:87), the largest seller of the six sizes. Every rivet and bolt of the real-life versions is in place, even the paint schemes. Holloway is enthused about a new addition, a scale version of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter train that runs through the Rio Grande Basin between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Like any enthusiast, he is a fountain of railroad knowledge. Holloway can recite history, the color schemes of various lines and technical information. When he helps assemble the Exploreum display, he calls himself a “Gandy dancer” in reference to the section hands who put together rail lines. When relaying a recent illness, he noted assistance from an appropriately named John Henry.
Exploreum Director Don Comeaux is a childhood hobbyist of various sorts who understands and admires MSME’s passions. He recently shot photos of the 30-year-old installation and mentioned a crowdfunding effort to refurbish their extensive showpiece and the trailer where it’s stored. It’s clear MSME has a home at The Exploreum.
“We bring it in every winter, Thanksgiving through New Year’s, so we’re going to see if we winterize it for them,” Comeaux said. “I’ve shot videos of those trains that look like real trains going through a tunnel.”
Holloway admitted time’s wear has shown on both the layout and membership.
“MSME membership has declined. Some members died out and other things of that sort — “
“Or their wives don’t want them to do it,” his wife, Malvina, interjected with laughter.
Her patience is obvious. As we talked, they stood near the Mobile Convention Center while her husband waited to watch a “unit train” on its way from McDuffie Coal Terminal to the rail yard.
Joaquin Holloway is also tolerant, used to rolling eyes and wisecracks. An old professorial colleague once jibed the enthusiast by asking where his “little cap” was.
“I told him, ‘I don’t wear a cap; I own the railroad,’” Holloway chuckled.