By Bob Jackson
A sagging economy and soaring gasoline prices couldn’t keep Bill Tisher away from his annual trip to the Youngstown Model Railroad Association’s annual flea market Sunday. He made the drive from his home near Wheeling, W.Va., because he didn’t want to miss the event.
“I try to come up every year,” Tisher, 47, said. “This is a great show because you can find things here — odds-and-ends kind of things — that you can’t find at other shows.”
Tisher said he came looking for Penske Railroad and Southern Railroad cars, which he bought and carried out in a plastic bag.
The flea market, in its 41st year, drew more than 600 visitors who viewed wares from 90 vendors covering 185 tables at McMenamy’s Banquet Hall on U.S. Route 422.
“It just seems to keep getting bigger and bigger every year,” YMRA President Jim Pope said of the event. “People still seem to be just be fascinated by trains. Maybe not quite as much as they were 25 or 30 years ago, but that fascination is still there.”
Founded in 1957, the association has two such flea markets annually, the proceeds from which help fund its activities. Pope said attendance is always strong, even during times when the economy is in a downturn, leaving people with less disposable income.
“They’ll come out, and they’ll spend $5 to come in here and look around,” said Pope, 75. “Whether they actually buy anything is another thing, but they always come out.”
He said visitors this year seemed “overall more cautious” about their purchases but appeared to be doing plenty of buying.
“They’re buying, believe it or not,” said Michael Leson of Youngstown, one of the vendors. “But it’s mostly cash this year. People seem to be really wary of using credit cards this year.”
Leson owns The American Rails & Highways which specializes in making custom wares such as mugs, T-shirts, hats, dinnerware, collector plates and train art. He said much of the work done by he and his partner, artist Peter Lerro, is shown and sold nationally in museums and online. He said all of his products are made in America, and the work is done locally.
Events such as Sunday’s flea market always draw a crowd, even during hard times, because trains take people back to a nostalgic time in the past, whether it’s their own or the country’s.
“Even though the economy is down, people want to go back to something that makes them feel good,” Leson said, noting that it’s common to see generations from the same family visiting together and sharing the railroading hobby.
Leroy Davis, 57, of Girard brought his 6-year-old grandson, Gianni, to see the wide range of model trains and accessories. Davis said he bought Gianni a model train set two years ago for Christmas, and he’s hoping that the youngster will continue to enjoy the hobby as he grows older.
“You never know what his interests are going to be in the future, but it’s something I’m hoping he’ll enjoy,” Davis said.
Likewise, Misti Gallo, 40, of Leavittsburg brought her 4-year-old son, Logan, because he loves toy trains.
“He has a couple trains at home, and so we’re here looking for things to add to the collection,” Gallo said.
Tisher said he’s been collecting model-railroad equipment since he was 10.
“I just think it’s kind of neat to build something and then watch it run,” he said, noting that there is a wide range of skills involved in building a train set, such as actually building the train, painting and decorating the backgrounds, and doing electrical work.
One of the highlights of this year’s show was a modular display set up by the Western Reserve Modular Railroad Club depicting a “post-war era” Youngstown, including a scale model of the former Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. and the Isaly’s plant, as well as other Youngstown businesses and landmarks from that time period.
Richard Ulrich, president, said the club built the display so it can be taken to various sites and shows for display in hopes of generating more interest in model railroading. He said it will be on display at the Home and Garden Show in the Austintown Plaza in two weeks.