Men recall model train racing of the past

HOULTON, Maine — Even now, sitting in the living room of his home in Boston, Massachusetts, Michael Hillman can still recall the excitement he felt racing model trains.

It was the favorite hobby of Hillman, who lived in Houlton briefly in the 1960’s when his father was stationed at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.

“I don’t think that many people do it anymore, but when we were kids, all of my friends were into racing model trains,” he said Wednesday. “It was such an exciting thing to do. My father and I got great joy out of it.”

According to the Maine Memory Network, model train racing was a popular hobby at the time. Youth gathered at the Houlton Recreation Center for races that were sponsored by the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad and the Houlton Pioneer Times.

Hillman said that he was a member of a model railroad train racing club when he was young, but he couldn’t recall the state that corresponded with the membership.

“We moved a lot, of course,” he said. “My father was stationed in a number of different places. But every state we lived in, he bought me a model train.”

Hillman said that most youth purchased the trains from hobby centers.

“It was really a big deal,” he said. “My friends and I would look at the train catalogues and pick out the train cars we wanted, or maybe the little figurines and scenery. I used to love to paint the little figurines that stood beside the track.”

He said that the premise of train racing was simple. Train tracks would be set up at a location such as the recreation center, he said, and two youths would pit their trains against each other. As more youths were eliminated, the two fastest train owners would then race against each other for the title.

Brian Muncey, another former Houlton resident who now lives in Portland, said that the train races of his youth were “very popular.”

“Back then, the B and A Railroad ran right through town every day,” he said. “People were accustomed to seeing trains. They were a source of fascination.”

He said that he never won any racing titles, but recalled the fun of the experience.

“We would be up there all day,” he recalled. “Tons of boys, just sitting around watching the races and comparing trains. Some kids would trade their trains or get ideas on new boxcars they wanted to buy. A lot of times, railroad engineers would be at the races to help us.”

There are still model railroad clubs set up in the state, such as the Eastern Maine Model Railroad Club in Orland.

“It is too bad that they don’t exist like they used to anymore,” said Muncey. “That was a big part of my childhood.”

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