Putting his lifelong train passion on display

NEW MILFORD — For Jim Hamill, helping set up the hands-on train exhibit at the town’s train station each year has rekindled a love for trains that started on Christmas nearly seven decades ago.

When he was 3 years old, he came downstairs Christmas morning to a scene he would never forget: A model train was chugging around the base of his family’s Christmas tree and his father, home from the Korean War for the first time in months, was standing nearby in his Navy uniform.

“For me, it was just absolute magic,” said Hamill, now 70. “It’s this Proustian experience and that’s what drew me back to this.”

But it wasn’t until he retired five years ago that Hamill was able to turn his childhood passion into a hobby. He joined a group of residents who have been setting up the hands-on train show, which kicked off this week for its 30th year, and has since developed a love for collecting and restoring model trains.

“I live for this,” Hamill said Saturday afternoon, indicating one of two tables where mini-locomotives weaved through model buildings.

The show, sponsored by the town’s Chamber of Commerce and The New Milford Commission of the Arts, is on display Thursday through Sunday until the end of the year.

This year’s setup included a 12-foot-long table with a gingerbread-themed display and a smaller table decorated as a “White Christmas” wonderland, said Adam Weaver, who has been helping with the displays since the exhibit began.

Some of the trains moving on the track have been donated by residents who visit each year, Weaver said.

“If they give it to us, we try to get it on there for them,” Weaver said.

He added that many families come so their children can watch the trains.

That was the case for Wendy Hrostek and her two children, who have made coming to the event a Christmas tradition.

“My son, Ben, loves trains,” Hrostek said. “We’ve come every year.”

This year, unlike years past, the station hosting the exhibit was occupied by another full-time tenant.

The building had previously been used for occasional town meetings, but since May, it has been taken over by the New Milford Commission of the Arts, co-directors Steve Tanenbaum and Diane Dubreuil said. The commission moved here from Church Street in May, which the directors agree was a successful switch.

Many people come in to ask for shopping, restaurant or sightseeing recommendations, Dubreuil said, which has helped local businesses. And, the commission’s exhibits have become more popular because of the central spot.

“It’s going gangbusters,” Tanenbaum said. “We’re getting a lot more people in to enjoy the art.”