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Train show lures generations of fans

PINELLAS PARK — It was about 1950 in rural Pennsylvania, and the mother of fourth-grader Alice Morris had two theories on what was causing the rampant spread of polio: overheating or fuzz on peaches.

Others, apparently, shared her belief in the former. So at Alice's school, to prevent students from playing during recess, the teachers built them a Lionel train set.

That prompted the students, including Alice, to beg their parents for train sets that Christmas. When the morning came, the girl scrambled into the living room to find a black American Flyer steam engine beneath the tree. It wasn't a Lionel, but still, it was hers. Then, she looked at the tag.

"To Gene."

Gene, her brother, was 3.

Alice sprinted into her parents' bedroom, demanding answers. A train set just wasn't fit for a girl. They'd gotten her a record player and some Gene Autry albums.

"I didn't understand," she said, "that girls couldn't have trains."

Girls, it turns out, actually can have trains.

Alice, 73, has run H&R Trains, the state's largest such store, for 38 years. From Friday through today, she and her husband, 71-year-old Don, are hosting the shop's 68th show. They're expecting more than 10,000 visitors.

On Saturday, under a broad white tent, dozens of miniature trains zipped on tracks through dioramas of mountains, towns and carnivals. Bells rang and whistles tooted. Wheels chugged and smoke puffed.

Wide-eyed kids peered over the tables' edges, hardly able to follow their parent's orders not to touch. Gray-haired men, many wearing conductor's hats, seemed no less tempted.

Experts, including Don, taught classes on how to paint trains, build scenery and, in one case, "Making Brick & Stone Walls with Styrofoam Using a Hot Wire from the Foam Factory."

The shows at the iconic store, though, may soon come to an end, at least for Alice and Don.

The business and the property at 6901 U.S. 19 are for sale. The couple, now ready to retire, is willing to sell them separately, but they're still waiting for the right buyer.

Alice wants the hobby to thrive beyond her retirement. Her business suffered during the recession, but it's coming back. She hopes the youngest generation will keep the hobby alive.

As she spoke in a back room of the store, a boy wearing a paper conductor's hat waddled in.

Alice looked up. She paused.

The boy stared at a small wooden train covered in bright green splotches sitting on the table. He picked it up. His name, Mason, was written on the bottom. He and his twin sister, Jenna, both 4, had each painted one earlier in the day. They were placed on the table to dry.

As Jenna inspected hers — yellow, red pink, purple and blue — Mason spotted something behind Alice.

The boy toddled over and stared up at a wall of children's books. He reached for one showing Thomas the Tank Engine.

Alice, still watching, smiled.

"Mimi, I don't have this book," the boy said to his grandmother. "I don't have this book, Mimi."

She bought him a T-shirt instead.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Train show lures generations of fans 03/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 6:13pm]
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