Larry Burkholder grew up next to the railroad tracks in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the mainlines of the Norfolk and Western Railroad guided thundering steam engines through town.
“I spent a lot of time next to the tracks, to the consternation of my parents. It just got into my blood back then, all the big and smoky steam engines. You’d stand beside them and cinders would blow down on you head,” Burkholder recalled. That childhood experience inspired a lifelong interest in model railroading, though it wasn’t until he retired that he had the time and space to set up a train layout in his basement.
He joined the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders soon after that, and the donation of an extensive model train layout by Milton Lloyd and his family to the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge kicked off a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship linking the museum with Burkholder and the model railroaders.
In the 14 years since the donation, the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders have developed and maintained the World of Trains exhibit that fills the west end of the museum and delights children with its toy trains and extensive model train layouts. The museum, in return, offered the train hobbyists a permanent home for the model trains and layouts belonging to the club. Involvement continues to grow as the railroaders, grateful for a permanent home, have supported the museum in myriad ways.
The railroaders provide a week-long model railroading summer camp for kids each year, volunteer at the annual Gala, help with remodeling and renovating other exhibit areas in the museum, and brought the outdoor Garden Railroad to the museum, said Mary Ann Damos, the museum’s former executive director. They host an open house from 1-4 p.m. each third Sunday of the month, inviting the public to view the club’s model layout train rooms, running the outdoor Garden Railroad if weather permits.
At first, they renovated the 3,500-square-foot west end of the museum for the trains exhibit and made club rooms for the model railroaders. Before that, the club’s train layouts were stored in church or members’ basements until train shows came to town and they could be assembled.
“We didn’t’ have a home, so this gave us a permanent location,” Burkholder said. The new home at the Children’s Museum also allowed the model railroaders club to add a Large Scale division to its N scale and HO scale trains.
To raise funds for the new trains exhibit, the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders helped start the museum’s annual Gala, originally known as the World of Trains Gala, a successful fundraising event for the museum. The trainmen continue to be involved in the Gala, helping with set up and stocking and serving drinks as volunteers in the Gala’s bar, Damos said.
“This has been a wonderful partnership we have had with the model railroaders. They have not only added to museum exhibits and attractions, they have helped in so many other ways – with education, upgrading the facility, the Gala. It has been a very unique partnership,” Damos said. “And Larry is a great ambassador for the museum.”
When the DIY Network produced a series of shows on model railroading, a location was needed for a segment on garden railroading. Burkholder, who was working with the series producer, recommended the Children’s Museum, which has a fenced yard in front of a caboose donated earlier to the museum by Norfolk Southern.
Producing the half-hour show took about a week. Mark Fuhrman, a member of the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders and owner of Mark Fuhrman Landscaping, and his crew built the garden layout. When completed, the network donated everything in the new garden railroad to the museum, about a $45,000 donation. Later, Fuhrman doubled the size of the garden layout. He and other members of the Large Scale club division take care of the weeding and cleaning, as well as decorating for Christmas every year.
Having a permanent location in the museum, the model railroaders have increased membership from about 45 to more than 70 members. Anyone interested is invited to come to the club’s meeting at 1 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month.
Because of his model railroading connection to the museum, Burkholder has served on the museum’s board, as its board president, and serves on the Gala planning committee. The model railroaders run the trains indoors and outside for special events at the museum. They have upgraded the rocket in the Rocket Room, added walls and refinished floors in offices and in the planned Healthy Living Exhibit, and replaced the floors when the TVA Waterworks exhibit was renovated.
“One of the ways we try to pay back is with sweat equity,” Burkholder explained. “We also donate $20 from each member’s dues to the Children’s Museum each year.”
“Our partnership with the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders is a great example of how community partnerships can work for the benefit of each organization,” Damos said. “It has always been a win-win experience for both that we hope to see continue into the future.”
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