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Our Town: Model railroad layout honors Grinnell’s history on a smaller level

The Grinnell Railway Express Museum includes three different layouts. One is a replica of the city from the 1950s.
The Grinnell Railway Express Museum includes three different layouts. One is a replica of the city from the 1950s.(Randy Dircks)
Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 9:20 AM CDT
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GRINNELL, Iowa (KCRG) - About 20 years ago, a Grinnell couple bought the depot building across from the south side of Central Park. It sits right along railroad tracks, and not far from where the two rail lines cross. They refinished the depot to make it restaurant-suitable.

But the restaurant came with a little building, across the street, as part of a package deal. The couple decided to donate the little annex to the nearby Mayflower retirement community, but there wasn’t really a plan for it. So, one of the Mayflower board members suggested a model railroad club.

So, in 2002, the model railroading club transformed the tiny structure into a step back in time.

“We put up drywall, and, of course, the layout and the ceiling and the carpeting and the lights,” said Michael Thorndike. It’s been a work in progress for 18 years, with little additions here and there.

There are actually three layouts running at the same time, but one has a very special connection to Grinnell. Thorndike said the “HO” style layout stays true to what life would have been in Grinnell in the 1950′s.

“We’ve tried to stay true-to-form on the cars, the engines, the buildings,” Thorndike said. “Older people that come in and see that say, “Oh, that’s Grinnell isn’t it? Yea, it is. And we’ve got specific buildings that are actually scratch built that look just exactly like the full-sized buildings.”

It also honors the legacy of the railroad in Grinnell.

“Then we have a static layout of “G-gauge” which is a “garden” railroad. It represents the Iowa Interstate and the Rock Island which is the line that runs east to west through here,” he said. “We have, in the front of the building, a narrow gauge “HO” layout like you’d see in the Colorado mountains or in the Appalachian Mountains.”

There’s a little bit of something for everyone. Anyone can visit the layout, it’s usually open on Friday nights and during community events, Thorndike said. There’s no charge.

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