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Monday, December 18th, 2006

Christmas chugs into Maria Stein

By Shelley Grieshop

An old Chesapeake & Ohio locomotive makes its way around the track at Jim Schwie. . .

MARIA STEIN - Nothin' says Christmas like the whistle of a chugging locomotive as it circles a lit evergreen.
It's those sights and sounds that Jim Schwieterman recalls from childhood when he and his brothers fought over a toy train set in the family's basement. Today, the entire Schwieterman clan enjoys an extensive collection that includes six separate trains that travel through tunnels and along rocky cliffs.
"Trains are synonymous to Christmas," says Schwieterman, 45, known locally as Dr. Jim.
The Schwieterman train enthusiasts include Jim Schwieterman's father, Don, and his brothers, Tom, Bill and Joe.
Joe Schwieterman's career reflects his love of trains. He is considered an expert in transportation issues at DePaul University in Chicago and has authored two books on the effects of the disappearance of the railways in the United States.
When the brothers were mere boys in their father's shadow, they anxiously awaited the transformation of the boxcars and locomotives from storage to the shiny steel 12-foot track.
Today, the multiple trains run across 300 feet of track, hauling about 30 cars. Some of the pieces - including Don Schwieterman's prized Commodore Vanderbilt engine - date back to that first train 45 years ago. This year the trains crisscross around a newly-created 18-by-10-foot display in Jim Schwieterman's basement. The set is mobile and is stored away until someone decides to "resurrect" it, he adds.
"It's kept at dad's house most of the time. We have an understanding that it's on loan when we get it," he says with a laugh. "Tom resurrected it about 10 years ago, but the last three years it's been stored away."
At the pleading of his twin 13-year-old daughters, Margaret and Claire, he decided to bring it back to life after five dormant years.
"It occurred to me, with their age and all, this might be one of the last times we have it here while the kids are home," he said.
His brother, Bob of West Chester, spent 16 hours last week working on the display, he said. It typically takes 100 hours to complete. In the past, the family used cast plaster - something familiar to the family of physicians - to create rolling hills and mountains. But not anymore.
"Now they have this fabric with plaster in it. You roll it in water, form it and hang it on the chicken wire," Schwieterman said. "It works great."
With Schwieterman at the controls, the aging Commodore engine makes its way past a miniature 7-Eleven convenience store prop, not far from a model of the Jefferson Memorial, which was crafted for a D.C. trip project by one of Schwieterman's twins. He adjusts the track periodically, admitting "it's getting old and doesn't always lay flat."
Parts for the train are replaced little by little as they go into disrepair. A few feet from the busy track is the "freight yard," a train graveyard of sorts where boxcars and other items are gracefully retired.
As children, the Schwieterman boys conspired each year to enlarge their track by asking Santa for help.
"We'd tell each other, 'Bill, you get a box ar; Tom you ask for a locomotive...,' just so we could make it bigger and bigger," he explained with a grin.
As kids their parents took them on the real thing, the Broadway Limited train from Fort Wayne to Chicago to visit the sights. It was a time he says he'll never forget.
"We even wore the engineer clothes, the bibs, hat and all," he chuckles. "I loved it."
As a college man, he looked forward to coming home on Christmas break to set up the expanding track, working from dawn to dusk, he said. The memories of yesterday and the ones the family are making today as friends and family stop by to see the collection are indeed priceless, he said.
"I really like the bonding when my nephews come over to see it. They start working the transformers, and they get that joy in their eyes. It's like magic," he said.
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