TENMILE — Sounds of train whistles can be heard from the top of the driveway of John and Karen Pankow’s home. It’s close to a 75-yard walk from the end of the driveway to their garage, which houses what could arguably be a dreamscape for lovers of wintertime, model trains or, for that matter, the upcoming holiday season.
Suffice to say, more than one person has felt that way over the years.
“The greatest thing is the faces of the kids when they see it,” said John Pankow, a lifelong train enthusiast and primary creator of the massive train set. “The first word is always something like, ‘Wow,’ or something. And the joy they have on their faces, the look they have, is one of the greatest memories you could ever have.”
The Pankows have given plenty of great memories to people of all ages from around the nation with their train set, which includes six electrical trains, dozens of model houses and hundreds of trinkets, toys, trees, and miniatures of people and animals. It’s a project that started modestly in 1991 but has ballooned into a toy train world spanning 250 square feet. It also has a “Wow” factor among annual visitors from Lookingglass Elementary School along with young and old adults alike.
“We had one couple that stayed close to two-and-a-half hours,” Karen Pankow said with a smile. “Average is about an hour because there’s so much to take in. The thing of it is we have people who have been coming back for the past five years and every year ... some of them come back and say, ‘Hey! That’s new!’ Five years and they’re still looking at things and finding new things here.”
Each of the six trains in the Christmas-themed display is on its own track, ensuring each engine can run continuously without colliding with another. Old buildings like an S&H Green Stamps Redemption Center were right up the road from a Lowe’s hardware store. Snowmen, ice skaters and scarf-wearing figurines are among the many character depictions. Even Santa Claus is in several places, including his all-too-familiar spots in front of a camera and flying high in the sky with his eight tiny reindeer.
Some of the Pankows’ friends have donated model housing or characters to the cause. Other pieces were the result of impulsiveness, including a merry-go-round from a vacation that went through Pennsylvania and other items that came from places like San Antonio and California, among other places.
“We didn’t drive all the way to Pennsylvania just to get a merry-go-round,” Karen Pankow quipped.
She, it turns out, was the brainchild for a setup more than a generation in the making.
John Pankow, who had always had model trains growing up, decided to give some of his last remaining trains to his grandchildren in the late 1980s. But not long afterward, when the couple was spending their wedding anniversary in Carmel, California, Karen Pankow got excited when she was walking by a storefront.
“She said, ‘That’s what I want,’” John Pankow said. “All I saw was a bunch of ladies’ sweaters, so I said, ‘You want a sweater?’ She told me no and pointed toward the ceiling.”
Hanging from the ceiling were train tracks and a model train.
Soon afterward, John Pankow purchased a starter model train set that’s still running today.
That starter-set engine not only runs by miniature people and houses, but goes through a tunnel and even goes over a river that has a fly fisherman casting a line next to some deer grazing nearby. They’re all pieces of a display John Pankow said takes close to 100 hours to set up each time, though the couple have left the display in place for the past five years. They figure covering it for the spring and summer months and dusting it off in November when it’s time to reopen makes more sense.
“At our age, 100 hours is pretty valuable,” John Pankow, 79, said with a laugh.
The couple, which plans to celebrate its 59th wedding anniversary in January, also plans to keep the display open with free admission to the public through the middle of February. They also plan to keep doing the display every year as long as they’re able, knowing it produces more than just smiles.
“It started out just for us,” Karen Pankow said. “Then it kept growing and growing. We just like doing it, and people seem to like what we’re doing.”