downtown Gilbert 1950s model

The club’s rendition of downtown Gilbert aims to achieve a realistic portrayal of what it looked in the 1950s, when what is now the Liberty Market Restaurant was really a market.

Model train enthusiasts have a place to share their passion at the Gilbert Historical Museum.

The Gilbert Model Railroad Club was founded by Jim Knollmiller in 2006. 

He recruited a group of East Valley based model railroaders to join him in the club. They began in Tempe but soon moved to Gilbert and became active with the Historical Museum, where the basement was cleared out for the club’s use.

By 2007, the group had a diorama ready to display. Today they have a double decker layout that includes replicas of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads. 

The club’s model railroad set is based on central Arizona in the 1950s – a popular era with model railroaders because the decade marked the transition from steam locomotives to diesels. Both types of trains can be included in model railroads representing this era.

Club members work to make everything as accurate as possible in the scale that they work within but they also have to consider the space they have to display everything.

While the basement is 38’x38,’ the models take up a lot of space.

“We have to compress everything,” said club Treasurer Dave Hunt. “We can’t put every detail in, but we put as much in to make it look right.”

Model railroad sets are built with every detail taken into consideration. Even the buildings have legible signs.

The scenery includes little bit of water in the Salt River with a tuber floating in it and a junkyard has a welder with flashing lights.

The Liberty Market Restaurant was a store in the 1950s and is featured in the club’s version of downtown Gilbert. At the time, the brick building had a large Coca-Cola advertisement on its side, which is also shown in the model.

The scenery of the model railroad is an evolving process, Hunt said, and is about half-finished. 

“The scenery is like a stage and obviously the actors are the trains,” Hunt said. 

To appeal to children, club members placed figures around the model for them to find. 

A figurine of Thomas the Tank Engine is in one of the buildings that club members show young visitors.

 There is also a “space cowboy” figurine Hunt found and painted light green as well as a Disney princess and a bear. Hunt said the bear is difficult to find and kids are excited to discover it. 

The goal with what Hunt calls “vignettes” is to give children something to do besides look at the train sets and hopefully inspire an interest in train modeling.  

“We do want to keep the kids busy because the kids want action,” he said.

This also includes running the trains. 

The trains are equipped with computer chips that enable them to move around the track, light up and make noises like blowing horns.

Keeping with their larger counterparts, the trains do not run as quickly as the kids might like, but the vignettes are another way for club members to interest them in the models.

Club meetings are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Two of these nights each month are for meetings and the other two are operations nights. 

A few club members are at the museum on Saturdays to interact with visitors. They are typically there from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. but Hunt says that they usually stay longer. 

There are five members on the leadership team, including Hunt and currently 20 club members overall. Individuals interested in joining the Gilbert Model Railroad Club go through a trial period of two months before they can become official members.

 Membership costs $10 per month and there is no payment due during the trial period. There might eventually be a limit imposed on the size of the club, but the group has not reached that point yet.  

Most club members are retired and the majority are from the East Valley but some members hail from Ohio and even Canada. 

“Our hobby is pretty universal,” said Hunt.

The Gilbert Historical Museum reopened in early June, but facial coverings are required for visitors. Everything in the museum is off-limits to touch and physical distancing is encouraged.