In a twist of fate, it was the polio scare of the 1950s that started Alice Morris' lifelong love affair with model trains. When she and her classmates were forced to stay indoors for fear of catching the disease, her school provided a model train set to play with during recess.
"Everyone went home and asked for a train that Christmas," Morris said. "The hobby shop did very well that year."
Ever since, Morris, 73, has devoted her life to model trains and introducing the hobby to new generations.
This Friday through Sunday, her store, H&R Trains in Pinellas Park, will hold its 66th semiannual train show.
The shows have drawn thousands to the shop at 6901 U.S. 19 N, with cars lining the block and filling a parking lot behind the neighboring Rooms to Go furniture store.
The event is held underneath a large white tent behind the store and includes a model train contest, downhill train racing and wooden train painting for kids, all free.
Clinics are also available with topics including LED lighting, scenery building and tips for becoming a better modeler.
The contest, the show's main attraction, brings together a large variety of enthusiasts.
Judges award ribbons and gift certificates to the top-scoring displays across a wide variety of categories, including age of competitor and the size of the train. Judges consider each entrant's quality of workmanship, imagination and creativity. The most coveted prize is Best in Show, given to the display that judges score highest.
Anyone may enter. Applications are available at H&R Trains.
Morris began hosting these shows almost 40 years ago, when she owned a much smaller store in St. Petersburg.
"One of my customers said, 'You know, we don't get to go to these people's houses to see their layouts, so why not bring them here and have a competition?' " Morris said.
After the success of her first train show, Morris began going to model train conventions and teaching others her methods of organizing a show so they could replicate the events elsewhere.
Last year, the Hobby Manufacturers Association presented Morris with a Distinguished Service Award for her dedication to the model railroad industry.
About a year ago, Morris announced that she plans to sell her business to begin her retirement with her husband. But finding the right buyer is proving tricky.
"We are trying to find the right person," Morris said. "A younger person with a passion for trains who will move the business forward."
Morris believes the future of model trains will be heavily tied to new technology and hopes to find a new owner who could market the business using social media and appeal to younger generations.
Until she finds the right buyer, Morris will continue to run H&R Trains and host free shows twice a year. She finds great satisfaction in bringing the hobby to additional people, both young and old.
"There are people that need hobbies," Morris said. "It helps keep their sanity."