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Meet the Modeler: Tony Koester

By Tony Koester | July 11, 2021

From Lionel Super O to Midwestern crop scenes, Tony's experience covers a lot of "ground"

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Midwestern scene on a model railroad
Corner of a Super O model train layout
A snapshot of one end of Tony’s Lionel Super-O shows two MR-based scratchbuilding projects: a Soo Line wood caboose entering the tunnel, and the Santa Fe’s Albuquerque, N.M. depot at right. Both were made from balsa wood long before he discovered milled basswood from Northeastern. Photo by Tony Koester

What was your first train set (or locomotive)?

I got a Lionel O-27 train set powered by a 2-6-4 when I was all of three years old. Dad had just come home from the Army and times were tough, but little Tony really wanted a train for Christmas. Dad kept checking at the post office for the box from Sears, but it hadn’t arrived. Then late Christmas Eve, assistant postmaster Archie Gamm called Dad to tell him the box had arrived. “A boy has to have his Christmas,” Mr. Gamm said, explaining why he was working so late.

I still have that train set (see photo above), and I suspect that engine – re-lettered for my favorite Nickel Plate Road, of course – still runs. It saw service on a later Lionel Super-O layout I had as a teenager.

Describe your model railroading philosophy in 6 words.

To revisit a favorite past era.

What has been your biggest modeling success?

Midwestern scene on a model railroad
We used to think that modeling mountain country was the best way to ensure eye-catching scenery, but the Midwestern agricultural belt has a quiet allure of its own. And it’s not as flat as outlanders often think, as melting glaciers cut deep steam beds that often require bridges rivaling those of the central Appalachians. Photo by Tony Koester

When building two basement-size model railroads (same basement, different times), I was smart enough to follow the examples of successful model railroaders: Allen McClelland (Virginian & Ohio) and Bill Darnaby (Maumee Route). I “did my own thing,” but I had observed what they had done carefully enough not to be overly concerned that the end results would be failures.

Rows of crops on a model railroad
You can’t model flatlands railroads without modeling crops. The rows of soybeans in the foreground are large brown pipe cleaners coated with hairspray and leaf flakes, a technique developed by Jason Klocke. The corn is from JTT, the wheat is a mat from Scenic Express, and the photo backdrop is from SceniKing.

What was your biggest modeling mistake?

I assumed that my four children would tell me if they were interested in the hobby, so I didn’t make a concerted effort to encourage them to participate. I later found out that two of them might have jumped aboard with a little encouragement. One of my grandsons showed an early interest, so I encouraged him, and he’s an active modeler today.

What’s your least favorite modeling task?

Wiring has to top the list. Fortunately, with digital command control (DCC), it’s vastly simpler than it was with D.C. block control. Both the Alleghany Midland (AM) and Nickel Plate Road (NKP) featured command control.

What project(s) have you been working on recently?

A vintage speaker sitting on a shelf next to a container of pencils
Tony is now installing a telephone system that Model Railroad Control Systems built using authentic railroad components, including this Western Electric WECO 100F speaker (one of three) complete with vacuum tubes. Two of the three scissors phones are former NKP hardware.

I am installing a telephone system using authentic railroad hardware to connect the dispatcher with the two “telegraph” operators. I am also starting work on two of the handful of significant structures that have yet to grace the railroad. And there are always more crops to plant on my flatlands railroad.

What advice would you give to a new hobbyist?

Join the National Model Railroad Association and attend Division and, if possible, Region events. Veteran modelers are eager to share hard-won lessons that will make a beginner’s entry into the hobby so much easier. If the newcomer has a specific prototype railroad in mind, I encourage him or her to join the associated historical society, and consider attending one of the Railroad Prototype Modelers meets that are held around the country. In short, there’s nothing like networking.

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