Donald A. Promnitz">

Photo by Donald A. Promnitz. A part of the model town at the HO Model Railroad Club. The club seeks to grow, but they are constrained by the small size of their current location in South Fresno. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz

published on December 1, 2020 - 2:11 PM
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Fresno native Larry Ames’s fascination with trains started when he was growing up on McKenzie and Maple avenues, where the Southern Pacific Railroad ran by his home.

The interest never left and now — in a tiny room next to an army surplus store near Belmont and Blackstone avenues — Ames shares his passion with others. It’s in here that the dozen or so members of the HO Model Railroad Club of Fresno meet to run model locomotives around the room and through the tiny town.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of people nationwide that follow the Class 1 railroads and the short-line railroads,” said Ames, the current club president. “It’s more than just a hobby to people.”

The club includes former rail workers to current train enthusiasts — some who like to craft, and others who are just there to have some fun.

“There are some members that just like to come and just run trains,” said Al Mollo, the Railroad Club treasurer. “And some of us like to do other things, like I like building models and stuff like that.”

The club takes great pride in their trains — including the use of metal wheels instead of plastic to help them stay on the tracks better. Instead of wire hooks, they attach the carts using mini couplings resembling the ones on a real freight train.

They’ve got big plans for growth and want to bring the hobby into the Central Valley’s public eye, but they need a bigger location to facilitate their expansion. To be more specific, the club seeks to acquire 1,500 to 2,000 square feet that would serve as their new meeting space.

“Right now, I think I’ve got five or six people who are sending emails to me, or texts, once a month,” said Jim Scheiner, the former club president. “They’re interested in becoming a member, but we’re not taking any members right now because of all this uncertainty.”

Like Ames, Scheiner gained an interest in trains at a young age when he got his first Lionel-brand set in kindergarten. He’d been a member of the club in Selma before that group had outgrown its own space, causing him and Mollo to start the HO Model Railroaders in Fresno. After getting a hold of their current property roughly 20 years ago, they also set up a display at the Manchester Center, in the corner storefront by the old carousel.

According to Mollo, the mall display helped them double their size from around 25 members to 50.

“The thing is, if you have the ability to have people see you, that’s when they decide they want to join,” Mollo said.

The Model Railroad Club has been in talks with the Manchester Center to set up shop there once more. It will be a new place for Ames, Mollo and Scheiner to meet with their friends, but that’s only the start of their plans. In addition to being their new club headquarters, they hope to create a free attraction for the public as the trains run around the new space.

Just like before, they hope that by entering the public eye, more people will join. The club also hopes to be a conduit for education in tech and safety. Ames hopes to recruit students from the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) high school in Clovis to help with the set up, and to learn the new, cellphone-driven programs that are being used to power the model locomotives.

Meanwhile, other members of the Model Railroad Club work with Operation Lifesaver, a public safety speaker program that educates others on railroad safety.

“We feel that we have something to offer to the community if we can find the space to locate to,” Ames said. “And along with that, we can hopefully educate the public about trains and about the dangers they face in and around trains and railyards.”

The Model Railroad club hopes to open sometime next year, but Covid-19 has made them put their plans on hold for the time being.

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