Toy trains have intrigued Ed Dice for as long as he can remember. In the beginning, it was a wooden train at his grandparents' house. Later, there was his father's Lionel train that circled a basement sump pump in their home.
One Christmas in the 1950s, Dice's father wrapped the train and gave it to his son. With his new acquisition, the youngster set up a track in his mother's pantry, where he spent hours running the steaming, whistling, chugging train in the dark.
"Mom lost her pantry to that train," recalled Dice, a semi-retired data processor and U.S. Air Force veteran.
These days, Dice and a handful of other adults who love toy trains are kids again, especially on weekends at the West Florida Railroad Museum in Milton, a town in Santa Rosa County about 25 miles northeast of Pensacola and just five miles north of I-10.
The adults' playtime evolved several years ago when Dice, while volunteering at the restored railroad depot, realized that few people were visiting the L&N Milton freight-and-passenger station that had been built from 1907 to 1909 on the site of the original 1882 P&A Depot.
After closing in 1973, the depot was purchased by the Santa Rosa Historical Society, which oversaw a partial restoration in 1976. Thirteen years later, with restoration completed, the depot opened as a museum with an outdoor collection that today includes a restored L&N dining car, a Pullman sleeper car renovated into a museum office car, a baggage/dormitory car/exhibit car, two cabooses, a boxcar and a flat car. Outbuildings include a bridge tender's house from the Escambia Bay trestle and a section shed with motor car.
Railroad memorabilia – from a conductor's hat to passenger seats – are on display in the restored depot, where Dice was volunteering when he developed the idea for running trains of his own. Toy trains, that is.
Dice, who had been showcasing model trains at shows throughout the country, was delighted when he received approval for setting up a track on a vacant lot where the museum's mini riding train already was installed.
Joining with several other toy-train enthusiasts, Dice set up two loops in 2007, and once the toy trains began circling, visitors began to take notice. Some wanted to install similar garden railroads at home; others wanted to take part.
That nucleus of 12 people has morphed into some 45 members who gather on Fridays and Saturdays for what Dice calls "stress management."
The men-turned-boys set out their trains on a lot that measures 100 feet wide and 150 feet deep. Once the day's set-up is complete, several members of the Emerald Coast Garden Railway Club, remote controls in hand, stand around the fenced property and run their trains. After hours at play, they sit at several wooden picnic tables beneath a shade tree in the rear of the property.
"We're pretty landlocked," Dice observed, explaining that today the garden railroad has expanded to include five loops that stretch some 45 feet by 90 feet on land where a modest home, razed by fire, once stood.
On the narrow lot, club members repair and run trains, sip soft drinks, re-line switches, share news of their weeks and relate details of recent model railroading events. Now, they are planning the addition of a storage building, where they will stash the likes of tracks, tents, chairs and barbecue grills, which "like a concert" can be unpacked for shows.
While land is limited, members' imaginations are not, evidenced by vignettes – a small town, a village, an industrial site – sprinkled among the loops. When members drag out their toys, some run long trains with as many as 45 cars; others prefer short trains.
"Long trains impress visitors," Dice said, adding that teen visitors often wish for the toy trains to crash. And, it can happen, if the remote operators are not paying attention.
Crashes, however, "are not good," said Dice, who stores some of his train cars on site and keeps others – including the Lionel from his childhood – at home.
"We can run three or four trains if all operators pay close attention," said the Virginia native, who now owns hundreds of train cars, the most expensive a $350 engine.
"Some people, after seeing the setup, give us things," Dice said, pointing out a tiny Godzilla hovering as though ready to pounce on the next passing train.
Humor is prevalent among the train owners, who often fill their boxcars with such whimsical items as rubber snakes, light bulbs, Christmas balls and brightly colored Easter eggs, all part of their showmanship for crowds that have begun gathering now that the museum has added a new reason to visit.
With several hundred feet of meandering track, the garden railroad, Dice observed, "has been great."
Said retired firefighter and longtime club member Paul Weston, who still has the black Lionel engine he received as a 2-year-old: "This is one of the nicest garden railroads in the country."
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.