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Grandpa's Train still carries loads of love

"You love trains," Merrill David Hutchens III, age 3 or so, said to his grandfather. And thoughtfully, he added, "You need a train." At any rate, that's how David Hutchens remembers that long-ago conversation. And that's how Grandpa's Train got built.

Three years in the making. Locomotive, caboose and three cars. Two hundred feet of track.

The MC&C Railroad Co. The initials stand for the three grandchildren: Merrill, Christine and Chantal. Each has a car named after him or her. A fourth car is called "Heidi" for the family dog.

Load capacities are lettered on the three passenger cars: two children, says one car; one large child, says another; one child, two puppies, says a third.

This is no phony-looking, mold-poured, plastic toy. This is a serious steel toy.

The power source is in the 154-pound caboose; it is a 2-horsepower gasoline engine (taken from a lawn edger). It drives all eight wheels.

Speed? "About walking speed," Hutchens says. "I could make it go faster, but what for?"

Hutchens, 74, is a retired professional woodcarver, a shy, gently smiling man. Fifty years ago, he and his new wife, May, came down from Willow Branch, Ind. - on a motorcycle with two saddles.

Hutchens worked for 33 years, producing beautiful carved birds for Jonathon Jones, a woodworking shop in downtown St. Petersburg. He started the train in 1972 on his five then-rural acres in Seminole.

"People said I was crazy to make cars big enough for kids to sit in. My wife said I was crazy."

"I did not," Mrs. Hutchens says. "It was natural for him to do something like that. Didn't surprise me one bit."

The tracks were laid out near the front door. Neighbor children came over to ride. "There was screaming and hollering and hanging on," Mrs. Hutchens recalls.

Her husband looks around the neighborhood. "There were children in that house," he says sadly, "and in that one over there. They're all grown up now. And there don't seem to be any replacements."

His grandson, Merrill, is 23; the two granddaughters are in college. Anyway, they grew too old for the train years ago. So Hutchens took it around the county, setting up the tracks for school events, city picnics and the like.

With the precision he puts into everything, Hutchens built a trailer to transport the MC&C. Each car has its cubbyhole; 8-foot track sections pile atop one another. The wheels and axle and undercarriage are from an old Crosley automobile.

That Crosley also contributed to Hutchens' monster of a home-made tractor lawn mower, built in 1950. It cuts a 50-inch path. And he still uses it!

"Engine cost me $40, second-hand, and finally wore out last fall.

I had to buy a new $400 engine to replace the old one."

A few years ago, Hutchens had open-heart surgery and later a stroke. Mrs. Hutchens had some problems, too. They could no longer take the train out for children to play on it.

Hutchens decided to sell his railroad. Not because he needed money.

Because he couldn't stand the idea that it was no longer used by children.

He had many offers and turned down the highest ones. "A man who does commercials on television wanted it for his children. And a lodge wanted it, but they'd have used about once a year, and the rest of the time it would sit in some lawyer's garage."

In the end, he sold the train to Fair Time Novelty & Concession Supply, which rents it (and the services of a man to operate it) to all comers. (536-6798) "I still get out sometimes to watch the children ride," Hutchens says. "It's nice to know the old MC&C Railroad is still running."