Spare parts, lots of creativity and childhood dreams have transformed an old barn in Argyle into a place where toy trains run through dozens of vistas and draw in a new generation of railroad enthusiasts.
It was a childhood visit many years ago to the electronic train and miniature museum Roadside America in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania that first instilled Buck Guthrie with the wonder of toy trains.
“I was 5 when I saw those electric trains and I decided that’s what I want to do,” said Guthrie, who created the Toy Train Barn with his wife Jan.
That childhood experience sparked a passion still burning after 26 years working for the railroads, many of them as an engineer at Wisconsin and Southern Railroad.
In 2000, the couple bought back the Guthrie family farm and moved in with their two sons. The barn needed major repairs to become Guthrie’s staging ground for his toy train collections.
“The barn was swaying 16 inches in the wind,” he recalled.
Jan Guthrie remembers days of pressure washing and painting the barn after more than 20 years of neglect. The family restored the property, creating a home for their family and for the vision sparked in 5-year-old Buck Guthrie’s imagination.
The barn is now painted bright orange and has become the Toy Train Barn. Buck Guthrie creates dozens of vistas and scenes for his collection of antique train cars to travel through. He manufactures control panels for the trains from VCR parts and microwave ovens.
The family’s toaster springs now jump two child figures on pogo sticks. In another vista, smoke pours from a smoldering building and a model fire engine’s hose sprays steam. The smoke is powered by Jan Guthrie’s car defroster. The fire hose spray is created by her car’s windshield washer motor.
“It’s so funny to come home and see what’s gone now,” she said. “I go basic when I buy because I know it will end up on the trains.”
She said she once stepped out of a shower to find 12 bath towels missing. Buck Guthrie had used the forest green terry cloth to carpet the hills and valleys surrounding the railways. Crown molding bought for the
home instead became trim for the train exhibits, and the list continues. Jan Guthrie recalls these episodes with a smile. They are evidence of her husband’s creativity.
“We’ve been married 35 years this fall,” she said. “I always say that we’ve never had a fight, but he knows I’ll get him back if he deserves it.”
Jan Guthrie works full-time conducting tours of the Toy Train Barn. On one day she shares train knowledge with a group of Amish children and later leads a tour for a group of 40 senior citizens. The museum is open to visitors year-round.
In recent years, the couple has also formed connections with car clubs and motorcycle clubs. Club members visit the bright orange barn and Buck Guthrie enjoys bringing exhibits to auto shows. The owner of a 1952 Ford pickup truck he purchased at age 15, Buck Guthrie says he enjoys seeing the car shows as much as visitors enjoy his trains.
The Toy Train Barn’s collection includes trains dating back to 1860. One of Buck Guthrie’s favorites is an engine made during World War I. The body is fashioned from a metal baking soda can, a rare example during metal rationing.
The Guthrie’s property also includes a ride-along train they call “Little Toot.” Buck Guthrie constructed the train engine from a 55-gallon drum. Its headlight was once a coffee can. Little Toot pulls three passenger cars dating from 1933 along a 1.5-mile track dubbed the Argyle and Eastern railroad. Both the train cars and tracks were donated by the Green Bay Railroad Museum. Little Toot is currently out of operation, but they hope to have it running again this fall.
The Guthries enjoy serving as stewards of their corner of railroad history. And sometimes, the history comes to them.
In 1985, Jan Guthrie gave her husband an antique toy train car for Christmas. After he unwrapped it, they were both surprised to find gift tags hidden inside the train. The gift tags were dated Christmas 1925 and revealed the train had been a present to a little boy 60 years earlier.
“I always wonder what the little boy thought when he opened that present in 1925,” Jan Guthrie said. “But then again, I had a 45-year-old man open it and I bet he and the boy had the same reaction.”