DAGSBORO — It all began in 1947, when William “Bill” Day got his first model train set for Christmas.
“It was an American Flyer. I was a year old at the time. My dad got that train at a Western Auto store. He paid $50. That was a week’s wages for that train back then,” said Mr. Day. “And it still runs!”
More than seven decades later, the Day residence on Waples Street in Dagsboro is home to a predominantly homemade holiday tradition that Mr. Day, wife Susan, their children, grandchildren and neighbors all get to experience and enjoy.
A room in their ranch home is devoted to Mr. Day’s vast model train collection. It also portrays the results of his craft, art and woodworking talents, plus the true reason for the season.
As in all his displays, a manger scene is the centerpiece, “which it should be,” he said.
A multi-tier stage is the venue for multiple train layouts, augmented by scenery, sights and sounds of what life may have been like decades ago.
“I have 20 trains total. I only run four,” said Mr. Day, noting that, several years ago, he ran seven trains with an additional level.
The extravaganza includes programmed music, with 15 selections of carols or carousel music.
Trains are O gauge, one of the larger models available in the hobby.
The exhibit serves as personal enjoyment for family, including the Days’ five grandkids (the oldest is 16), as well as children in the neighborhood.
For several years, his display was part of the Delaware SeaSide Railroad Club’s house tour.
“I used to be in that. I belonged to that when it first started. And they had an open house. Fourteen of us had our houses open for displays during the holidays,” said Mr. Day. “I have dropped out of the club because I fill in as an organist for some of the churches in the area. It is just too much with my schedule.”
Each setup remains intact for two holiday seasons. Then, the switch is on.
“This stays up for two years, and every two years, it gets tore down, and something else gets put here. I have enough trains I can keep interchanging trains,” said Mr. Day.
This year’s arrangement totals about $2,800 in sets, including the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha, which Mr. Day found at The Christian Storehouse in Millsboro. Joining the Hiawatha are the Santa Fe Super Chief, the Flying Yankee and the Union Pacific M10000.
The layout obviously doesn’t happen overnight.
“This took me about three months. I kept running out of time, or I didn’t take the time. I should have worked on it every night. But little by little, I finally got it done,” said Mr. Day.
Displays feature scenery from yesteryear, including buildings, churches, a carousel, a skating pond with magnetized skaters, an aircraft tower, tunnels, water towers, people and animal figurines, imitation snow and the manger. Some miniature buildings dating back as far as the 1930s were replicated from collections and photographs.
Structures are handmade by Mr. Day, using heavy artboard and unbreakable cellophane for windows. Each can accommodate a light for added ambiance.
“Four years of art, four periods (of) art a day, in high school,” Mr. Day said.
To date, he estimates that he has made about 300 houses. “A lot of them I sold,” he said, adding that one was used in a TV commercial for a drugstore in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Family connection is the source for tunnel materials.
“Our oldest son and his wife are chefs at Gettysburg College. They get frozen food in Styrofoam, big sheets, and he saves it,” said Mr. Day.
While officially complete, Mr. Day’s project does welcome additional amenities. He recently received two dime store cars from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, courtesy of a grandchild.
Powering the trains are four transformers, including two digital and two old-timers, made in 1952. “They are in excellent shape. They put out 190 watts,” said Mr. Day.
Seventeen years ago, Mr. and Ms. Day moved to Dagsboro from southcentral Pennsylvania — specifically, Hanover, home to Utz and Snyder’s. “The snack capital of the world,” said Mr. Day, who was formerly employed as an explosives engineer in quarries.
In the living room of the Day home is a Christmas tree, with old-fashioned bulb lights. A smaller-gauge train rolls along beneath the tree, the impetus for what he showcases today.
“It started out with what they call a ‘putz’ — the German word for display is putz,” said Mr. Day. “They added people coming up to the manger. The manger was definitely the center of attraction in those days — animals, people coming to the manger to see the Christ child. Over the years, it evolved into what we see here.”
The train display augments the holiday spirit for Mr. and Ms. Day, who, for years, have costumed as Santa’s helpers at various events.
Last year was difficult, with the cancellation of many Santa appearances.
“The kids around here — last year because of this COVID thing — they didn’t have any Santa Claus for the kids to go to,” said Mr. Day. “We kind of feed the kids in the neighborhood. We went out one Saturday and bought a bunch of presents, toys for the kids. On Christmas Eve, we put our costumes on, and ... Santa came to see them. I’ll tell you, it brought tears to my eyes. They were so excited to see Santa. I knew they wouldn’t see him in town anywhere.”
Mr. Day’s hope is that family will carry the torch for his love for model trains and the true meaning of Christmas.
“It has been a relaxation for me, that and ... playing the pipe organ. I enjoy doing both. They give me much pleasure — and my grandkids and my wife. I’ve got a good wife. The good Lord blessed me with a good wife. She’s a good cook, handles all my paperwork. … She’s my right arm,” said Mr. Day, who, at 75, still works part time for his son’s cleaning business.
“A lot of times I work, I’m kind of exhausted and kind of tired. And I’ll come in and run the trains and feel great. I don’t have a lot in the world, but I’m happy.”