The History Of the Paper Valley Model RR Club of Appleton, Wisconsin.
By Paul Hilmer
The PVMRC began in 1936 when Karel Richmond, a member of the YMCA junior board of directors, was put in charge of “hobbies”. Karel was fascinated with trains and decided to start a small model railroad club. Karel recalls “we started with a small layout in a room they gave us.” it was located between the secretary’s office and the billiard room at the old Appleton YMCA and was open at all times. Karel remembers the “Y” layout as “two loops of track, 20 foot square, with no yards or other facilities associated with it. The kids were all enthused until they found out they had to cut ties and lay rails. A lot of them lost interest when they found out they had to work at it.”
The club survived the “Y” for three years then disbanded due to lack of interest. Karel Richmond started searching for a new group and in 1940, advertised in local papers and hobby magazines for anyone in the area interested in trains. His effort attracted a number of interested Appleton area modelers.
The club reformed as an “armchair” club, meeting at various homes of the club members. Members would talk about the different aspects of the hobby and discussion often centered on trying to secure a permanent location. But with WWll going on, the members had trouble locating a place for a layout.
CHARTER MEMBERS 1942…
Karel Richmond-founder, Al Ayers, Sidney Cotton, Melvin Crowley, Al Dekuester, E. E. Fourness, Douglas Fronmuller, Bernard Laabs, Lester Manske, Freeman Nicols, Douglas Otto, and Carl Peotter.
On Febuary 11, 1943, Mumme, Fronmuller, Laabs, and Nicols were appointed to investigate the possibility of locating a permanent location. In 1944, space to build a new layout, in the basement of the Conway Hotel, was leased. The switches being built. By the time the track work was done PVMRC members used over 10,000 ties, 124,000 spikes, and laid over 5,300 feet of track. In 1950, the Oshkosh Model Railroad Club came and helped the PVMRC and over 10,000 ties were laid in one night. On october 13, 1950 the “golden spike” of the mainline was driven and the railroad was humming with trains.
“A lot of track was welded in 15 to 20 foot sections,” recalled member Louis Phillips. “most of the rolling stock and structures were scratch built using lots of cardboard and strip wood.”
To power the layout, the club installed a big bank of batteries which were given to the club by a local phone company. Later, Miller Electric donated transformers and rectifiers. The transformers were too small so the club obtained a huge transformer from the Fond Du Lac Phone Company. Karel recalled that “the thing way weighed a ton,” as he and Al Ayers hauled it from Fond du Lac. The transformer worked and provided 18 volts to the common rail.
Seven control panels fet 25 miles of wire on the layout. The dispatcher would instruct cab “A” (green) to operate the westbound routes, and cab “B” (red) to operate the eastbound routes.
The club became operational and the third Friday of every month was operating night. Club members recall that many area folk brought their kids down to the club and put them in the caged balcony while they shopped picking them up around 9pm when the stores closed.
Les Manske describes a typical operating train, number 126, a freight carrying livestock.
“Number 126 may start at 7:20pm in the yard of the Ashland Division and steam its way on a timetable through Maywood, Wyeville, Stockton, and Union Station.
At Hight Bridge, it switches some cars and transfer from the interior trackage of the Ashland Division to the outer trackage of the Lakeshore Division. At the end of the run, the orders may be that the freight should return to the Ashland Division yards. It returns, running in the opposite direction as number 125.”
Besides the operating nights, the members meet from 8pm until 10pm on Thursday nights. Les Manske remembers that he would get so involved in his work on the layout that he would miss the last bus to Neenah and had to catch the 1:30am train back home to Neenah.
Across the street from the club house was a tavern. Members held quarterly meetings there and owner Jake Ashaer let them use a back room to show railroad slides and films. There was plenty of cheese, sausage, crackers and beer consumed during these meetings.
Wheat past was often used for scenery work. The problem was that the local residents of the “river flats”, the rats, thought this was a tasty treat. Louie Phillips recalls one weekend when the rats consumed a good portion of the scenery on the layout.
The club began its annual tradition of open houses in 1950. This was done as a fund raiser and the public a chance to see the layout. This tradition continues today at our current club house! The club also had fund raisers for March of Dimes over the years.
In 1962, Stan Bye, a member of the PVMRC decided to start a club closer to his home in Neenah. He started the Neenah Model Railroad Club and built an O-scale layout, the Milwaukee & Northern, in an old CMST&P depot in Neenah. This club, an offshoot of the PVMRC, remains active today.
By the late 1970’s, the PVMRC was beginning to run into problems. Membership was dropping as the hobby of model trains was becoming less popular. And even worst, the old depot was in great state of disrepair. The floor was so warped that the club had to jack up the layout several times to keep it level. The club managed to put a new roof on the building, but it seemed to be an endless repair job just to keep the building from collapsing. The main support posts were sagging.
A local non-member, Frank McGinnis, tried to help the club obtain a National Historical Building register for the 1881 depot, but was unable to do so. The club even had money in the City of Appleton budget to repair the building, but the funds were used by the city elsewhere.
By the mid-80’s, the club had dwindled to four members. In 1987, Ament Real Estate Company purchased the building from the CNW RR and gave the club until the end of the year to vacate the premise. It is interesting to note that the club could have bought the building several times over the years from the CNW for $1. But they could not afford to move it to a new location or purchase land for a new spot. They dismantled the 40 year old pike and sold most of the O-scale items over the years to a former member, Peter Davis, now living in Missouri. Peter had formed the Little Wabash Train Club in Columbia, MO.
The club went back to being an “armchair” club, meeting at various members’ homes. In 1988 member Francis Kozlovsky donated an HO module bench work set up for the club to work on. Each module measured 2 feet by 4 feet with larger corner modules. The club began working on this in Frank’s basement. The members also began promoting the club for new members through flyers at area hobby stores and begin to find some new blood.
In late 1990 the club was able to lease a store front in the Valley Fair Mall. They set up modules as a club layout and began to work on them. The club was open to the public on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons. Membership grew rapidly. Members took bus trips to Train Fest in Milwaukee and the Illinois Railroad Museum. The club and its members became active in the National Model Railroad Association. To date, the PVMRC has sponsored several NMRA events including Winnebago Division meets and Midwest Regional meets.
In 1995, Valley Fair decided that the store front could be used for more money making tenants. A mistake made by them in this writer’s opinion – the mall sank into financial ruin by the late 1990’s. The club packed up the modules and was able to lease a storefront space in the downtown Appleton Mall, The Avenue. Negotiations were taken place for use of the basement of the mall and possibly tie into the Children’s museum.
Meanwhile, one of the members, Bill Moede, approached the club about leasing an old radio station on Block Road in Kaukauna (Darboy area) from Evangelist Ministries (WEMI). Bill was employed by the station at the time, and the station was using the building for a transmitter and towers. The rest was empty and falling in a state of disrepair. The club could use the building for $150 a month, heat included, as long as they took care of the building (mowing, snow removal, etc). Even though it was located outside of Appleton, the price was right and the club packed up once again.