When Paul Hoerner was a toddler, he would wake on Christmas morning to a miraculous sight.
“Every Christmas Eve, after I went to bed, my dad would set up a Lionel train layout in my bedroom,” Hoerner says. “Somehow, I slept through it. When I woke up in the morning, Santa had brought trains. Then, every year, they would disappear at some point until the next year.
“I have a lifelong love of trains.”
For the past 30 years, Hoerner has been able to share that passion with holiday visitors to the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford.
The museum’s model railroad he maintains with co-worker David Jensen is as much a part of the holidays as Christmas trees and menorahs. When children spy the magical miniature railroad they eagerly ask, “When’s Thomas going to run?”
No matter how many times the scene plays out, it warms Hoerner’s and Jensen’s hearts.
Thomas the Tank Engine—with his pal Percy, of course—is just one of the highlights of the popular O-scale train display that is kept chugging along by Jensen and Hoerner, heads of the museum’s Railroad Department.
The sprawling model railroad and lifelike village have been a part of A Brandywine Christmas since 1972. The Brandywine Conservancy, which operates the museum, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Part of the celebration highlights the railroad with the campaign: “All Aboard for a Lifetime of Memories.”
The tradition hits close to home for Jensen and Hoerner, who both volunteered at the Wilmington & Western Railroad when they were younger. Jensen has tuned up the museum’s model trains for nearly 40 years. He started at 14 as a volunteer. Hoerner came aboard in 1987.
“Everybody always had a train around the Christmas tree at one time or another,” says Jensen, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Still Plays With Trains.” “We have third and fourth generations coming out. They tell us it’s a family tradition and that it’s not Christmas until they see the Brandywine Railroad.”
The display covers a 25-by-61-foot area. It features 40 locomotives, more than 500 cars and 2,000 feet of track that winds through a village complete with Santa Clauses, tiny strings of holiday lights and figures of children ice skating and building snowmen. And, as any true winter wonderland deserves, everything receives a dusting of snow.
Then there’s the moon-faced Percy, who wears a Santa hat and hauls a cargo of presents—“and milk and cookies,” says a smiling Jensen.
The six-week Brandywine Christmas celebration traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, so Jensen and Hoerner often miss the holiday dinner with their families as they put the final touches on the festive display. The job demands a full-time, year-round commitment from the self-described train fanatics as they maintain and operate the railroad, which is stored in 28 sections in a nearby barn.
They’re obviously in it for the long haul.
“We sacrifice Thanksgiving,” Hoerner says, “because we love being a part of families’ holiday traditions.”