One-track Minds

by Tim Froberg

Paul Hillmer has been interested in cars and trains since he was a kid. He had his first model train layout in high school but got rid of it before heading off to college. In 1983, after selling a few cans from his beer can collection at a flea market, he bought his N-scale layout from a seller a few stalls down. Since then, his interest has only grown. 

Model railroading can seem a daunting hobby to start on your own, but the hobby draws people from all walks of life. There are a lot of components to setting up a layout. As Hillmer explained, every model train layout involves wiring, programming, scene creation, and operation. There’s something for everyone though, and that is what makes the Paper Valley Model Railroad Club, of which Hillmer has been a member for 30 years, so special.

“You don’t have to own a layout at home, you can come run it at the Club,” Hillmer said. Thanks to the Club, members can help with the setup and maintenance of the layouts. They currently have HO and O layouts, which are fully functional and designed to operate like real working railroads. “Every car has a purpose. They’re all doing a job and in a constant state of operation,” said Hillmer. Most members find themselves learning as they go, until they decide to take their hobby home and start designing their own layout.

For Hillmer, recreating scenes is one of the things he likes most. His father was a painter, so designing a train layout and all the scenic components is really 3D art. Modelers can either make a freelance layout or prototype. Freelance, like Hillmer’s home layout based on Northern Wisconsin and Michigan, usually embraces a theme but is not specific to a certain year or place. Prototype, on the other hand, like the layouts at the Club, aim to recreate a railroad at a specific time and place, and operate exactly as the railroad once did. At the Club, they have layouts that include Green Bay and Milwaukee.

Karel Richmond, a member of the junior board of directors with the YMCA, started The Paper Valley Model Railroad Club in 1936. Today, the members continue to be active around town, not just working on the layouts at the club, but also visiting with each other and seeing their home layouts. For Hillmer, meeting other modelers has been the best part. “Good people and good fellowship over the years, and I’ve seen some stunning home layouts.” 

Hillmer is also a member of the Winnebagoland Division of the National Model Railroad Association, which organizes regional and national conventions, swap meets, and other events and resources for model railroaders.

Though currently closed to the public, since the 1950s the Club has operated admission-free Open House days on Thursday nights and Saturdays so non-members can come and see the trains in action. The Club and its members are discussing when they can safely reopen their doors, but in the meantime, check out their Facebook page for updates and plenty of videos. Train enthusiasts can also head up the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, where they can see exhibits and enjoy a train ride.