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By Bill Fuller
Santa Claus is okay, but Christmas just can’t come unless
there are trains running, and each year Bill Fuller and Jim Seward
make sure that Christmas will come to Spearfish, South Dakota.
When the “Festival in the Snow” arts and crafts fair
opens in the Holiday Inn Convention Center on the first weekend
in December, the trains will be running.
Inn provides the tables, which Jim and Bill cover with foam carpet
padding and white quilt batting. Sectional track is laid on top
of the batting, trusting in friction to prevent unwanted rail
separation. Department 56 ceramic buildings fill up empty spaces
between the tracks, while a variety of Lionel and MTH operating
accessories are aligned near the edges of the layout where their
performances can be fully appreciated by visitors. Since neither
Bill nor Jim wishes to alienate the Convention Center staff by
returning their tables drilled full of holes, wires to tracks
and accessories are laid between the layer of carpet padding and
With four extended ovals of 072 or greater radius for freight
and passenger trains, an 027 oval hosting a handcar, and a twisting,
bumper-ended line with a Christmas trolley car, the layout entertains
visitors with six active tracks. Viewers don’t even mind
when a scale UP steamer has to be sidetracked for emergency repairs
to a circuit board in the tender and an Alaskan Railroad scale
F-3 is pressed into duty to haul the UP passengers home for Christmas.
To enable visitors to interact with the layout and get a little
hands-on operating experience, Bill and Jim want to provide push
buttons for operation of accessories but are confronted by those
borrowed tables which can’t be mutilated with screws or
They solve the problem by cutting two planks about three inches
wide and three feet long, painting them white to complement the
“snow” batting, and screwing six surface-mount doorbell
buttons to each plank, spacing them as far apart as possible to
minimize crowding and bumped elbows among operators. Wires to
the doorbell buttons run through holes drilled in the planks and
are then threaded between the batting and the carpet pad. Computer-printed
labels taped above each button identify which objects are controlled
and instruct operators to “press and release” or “press
and hold”-although in their excitement, few people bother
to look at the labels.
The planks with their label buttons are merely laid on top along
the outer edges of the tables. The wires tucked underneath the
batting provide sufficient friction that nothing else is needed
to hold the boards in place. Button-operated accessories include
a Lionel crossing gate, gateman, banjo signal, animated billboard,
and Lionel Pipe Company forklift loading platform. In addition,
an MTH firehouse, service station, and car wash are button-activated.
The $2 doorbell buttons from ACE Hardware have withstood hundreds
of pushes; some not too gentle, and are ready to provide more
interaction each year.
What do Bill and Jim get in return for building, operating, and
then dismantling this set-up every December? Look at the faces
in the photographs accompanying this story. The rapt expressions
of amusement, amazement and excitement are payment enough for
all the effort!