Making a difference through toy trains
We’ve all heard the expression that “one person can make a difference” but how many of us truly take that to heart? If you’ve ever had the opportunity to attend the Will Huffman Toy Train Expo over the last 22 years, you witnessed the legacy of one man’s humble idea to give back to the community through “a celebration of the magic and nostalgia of toy trains.”
As an assistant curator of the LaRue Shempp Model Train Collection at the Lycoming County Historical Society (now Thomas T. Taber museum) for many years, Will Huffman believed in the magic of toy trains long before “The Polar Express” movie inspired a generation.
A teacher at Cochran elementary school, Huffman often took his 4th grade classes to visit the extensive collection at Shempp’s house, before they became a permanent display at the museum.
In December of 1990, Huffman set up a small train to circle the Christmas tree in the museum’s lobby.
“Every Christmas tree should have a train running around it,” he said. Carefully dusting the trains in the display cases and sharing his knowledge and love of toy trains with museum visitors over the next year, sparked an idea in Huffman’s mind. Why not set up some operating layouts in the museum’s community room for the public’s enjoyment?
Having been retired for several years, Huffman already had his own basement layout, and knew several friends who also did. He sent out letters to fellow “toy train buffs,” secured local businesses to sponsor newspaper ads, arranged for display tables and coordinated with the museum to feature and operate a few trains from the Shempp Collection. The result was an impressive, well-attended exhibition that was enjoyed by many families. A new holiday tradition in Williamsport was born.
Like a punctual 1940s Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, over the next 15 years the Toy Train Expo chugged into town every December to the Taber Museum.
As the chief engineer, Huffman continued to improve and refine the expo, often beginning the serious planning and preparation in late winter.
The expo has always strived to feature trains of every description, size, shape, make, and model. The willingness of many local toy train enthusiasts to bring in their operating layouts has been the backbone of its success year after year.
One spring, Huffman and fellow toy train buddy Bruce Miller constructed a 33-by-45-inch helix platform, basically a vertical spiral track that ran an auto-reversing gang car. The car would start at the bottom, climb the nine spirals to the top then reverse direction.
It worked great in the basement; however the pair soon realized a small oversight: they had constructed the platform a couple inches larger than the basement doorway opening. After disassembling and putting it back together in the garage, they had a good laugh and a good story.
Miller and Huffman also constructed the popular kids locomotive race platform. Consisting of two separate parallel loops of track running two nearly identical locos, kids could try their hand at seeing who was the fastest engineer.
In 2006, when space became limited at the museum due to a traveling exhibit, the expo found a new home one block east in the recently renovated Park Place building. It also began its association with Preservation Williamsport’s Victorian Christmas tradition. Full of “ornate doors and marble floors, rooms, nooks, and crannies” Huffman always liked the idea of showcasing toy and model trains in what was once a premier railroad hotel in the Northeast. The event has remained there ever since.
Over the span of two decades, exhibitors’ displays and layouts changed, thousands of visitors experienced the expo and yet Huffman’s timeless vision for the event remained the same: “A gift for the community for children of all ages.” A chance to “relive a less complicated world of wonder and nostalgia.” One person can make a difference, with a single idea, passion, perseverance and help from others.
After Huffman’s passing in 2011, it seemed only fitting to rename the premier family event in his memory. His sons, Eric and Bruce, continue the tradition along with “trainloads of help” from numerous dedicated exhibitors, volunteers, donors, sponsors and the support of the community.
The 23rd annual Will Huffman Toy Train Expo will chug back into town this year 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 23 and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday Nov. 24 at Park Place, 800 W. Fourth St. For more info visit toytrainexpo.org.