The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 23, 2013

(VIDEO) St. James model railroad draws crowds for Railroad Days

By Tim Krohn
The Mankato Free Press

ST JAMES — Bill Nordgren sits comfortably in the old chair in the historic depot in St. James, surrounded by the photos and memorabilia of a bygone era when rails ruled.

"I'd like to go back to railroading." Then a grin and a pause. "But I don't think they're hiring too many 88-year-olds."

Now he surrounds himself with memories as he volunteers at the old depot, welcoming visitors.

He worked as a railroad clerk for 10 years beginning at age 19, but got bumped out by an employee with more seniority. So he went into newspapering, first in Olivia and then for decades as editor of the St. James Plaindealer.

Despite his love of the railroad, he admits he didn't enjoy the full allure of riding the rails while he worked in depots from Aberdeen to Hopkins. "I never actually got a train ride until after I was done railroading."

Mike Lenzen, of Omaha, stopped in the depot to help Nordgren over the weekend during the busy St. James Railroad Days celebration. His dad, William, was a railroad agent in St. James from 1954 to 1986 and Mike worked as a manager for railroads for 41 years, moving all over the country.

The depot was built in 1894 in Amboy and was moved to St. James in 1973 to serve as a railroad museum. The town's working depot, located downtown, is still a hub of activity as crews switch shifts there for the daily trainloads of ethanol moving from the Lake Crystal ethanol plant to South Dakota.

"St. James was a very big railroad town. They employed a lot of people," Lenzen said. St. James was a division headquarters for trains running between St. Paul and Sioux Falls and points in between. Dozens of sidetracks, a large roundhouse and large depot and offices dominated the downtown.

That rich rail history supports a strong model railroad club — one Nordgren helped found in 1989 — that is based in a former city garage next to the depot museum.

Dan Shaikoski was one of several club members showing wide-eyed kids and adults around the maze of model trains running in the building.

"I got into model railroads when I was eight or nine and then got into it more when I had kids," Shaikoski said.

The club, Nordgren said, has trouble drawing younger members like Shaikoski. "The young ones like to come in and look, but not join," Nordgren said.    

The club, Roundhouse Inc., gets donations from various groups and spends it wisely, with members often hand building many of the buildings, bridges and other props on display.

When the group decides to buy some trains, Shaikoski admits there is some diplomacy needed to settle on what to get.

"Each guy has their railroad they like. We have to discuss it when we get something new."

Many of the trains added aren't, in fact, new.

"We have very thrifty members. We get a lot of old and broken stuff off of eBay and fix it up. We have some guys who are very talented."