Great NWA Model Train Show a journey back in time

Great NWA Model Train Show a journey back in time

Growing up in the 1950s in Duncan, Okla., south and west of Oklahoma City, Keith Johnson watched the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway — the Rock Island Line — pass through town. The Rock Island stretched across Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas and, like other rail lines, had extensive passenger service then. Johnson says his wife beat him out on riding the rails, however, traveling several times as a youngster from Ardmore, Okla., into Texas to visit family.

But that’s not what made Johnson fall so in love with trains that he has a 50-by-20 foot building to house them at his home in Farmington. It was a Lionel train set he got for Christmas when he was a first-grader, and the layout he and his dad built on a hinged platform in the family garage.

Since then, he’s had model trains big enough to run through his wife’s garden, but now that he’s retired from oil field management, his current layout is “O” gauge three rail. It’s described by TrainWorld as “one the most popular and oldest scales in the industry, featuring one of the largest varieties of high quality trains and accessories in the market.” It’s 1/4 inch to the foot — “quarter scale” — which means a 1-foot-long train car would be a 48-foot-long train car in full scale. It’s also a common dollhouse scale, offering more options for buildings, figures, and accessories.

Johnson says he doesn’t spend as much time with his trains as he used to, but he is president this year of the Sugar Creek Model Railroad and Historical Society, and he’ll help host the 21st annual Great NWA Model Train Show Feb. 24 at the Benton County Fairgrounds in Bentonville.

“The show is a fun place to see model trains running and how different people/groups set up and build their portable layouts,” he says. “Also if you have model trains to sell or want to purchase model trains, this is the place to be. At past shows we have had people from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Kansas come.”

Also hosting the model train show is the nonprofit J. Reilly McCarren Transportation Museum, founded by the Friends of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad and located next to the train depot in downtown Springdale. McCarren was the chairman of Arkansas & Missouri Railroad when he died in 2015, according to Brenda Rouse, excursion train manager for the A&M and a board member of the museum. McCarren, she says, had a passion for trains and transportation logistics.

“When visiting the museum one can see all sizes of model trains from Z to O scale,” Rouse says. “There is a Lionel train layout that goes through the tunnel with lights and sound; artwork from the late J.P. Bell and others, history on the ‘orphan trains,’ railroad china and a vintage tractor collection” — along with a trunk that Annie Oakley used when performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

“For those interested in big trains, tours are given of the train cars and the ‘Exeter 1288’ Frisco caboose, which actually ran on this line over 50 years ago,” she adds. “It was donated to the museum in 2023, [and] the interior restoration was completed by the museum volunteers. A second caboose restoration project should be started by the museum later this year.”

Rouse says she’s not sure where the passion for trains comes from.

“When I started working for the railroad, one of the engineers told me if I stayed around, it would get in my blood. Sure enough, it has,” she muses. “Model trains? I think the passion for some comes from the building of something and watching the finished project run. Some layouts are true works of art.”

All she can promise about the train show, she says, is that “the children and kids at heart … just get mesmerized at watching the trains go around the tracks.”



Great NWA Model Train Show

WHEN — 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Feb. 24

WHERE — Benton County Fairgrounds in Bentonville

COST — $5-$12


FYI — This event is a fundraiser for local charities.

Categories: Family Friendly