Jimmy Brown’s daughter was 10 when she told him she wanted a model train to chug around the family Christmas tree. Jimmy had wanted trains, too, when he was young boy, but his family couldn’t afford them. This time, he bought his daughter three.
On Christmas morning 20 years ago, they set up the two-rail track and built Lego houses and watched the H0-scale trains shoosh-shoosh past them. By the time Jennifer’s birthday arrived two months later, Jimmy had more trains in mind. And when the daughter’s interest inevitably waned, the father’s interest didn’t. Jimmy loved his trains. His wife, Carole, wasn’t quite as smitten.
She called them his “big-boy toys,” and she smiled when he went a little wild buying them, and again when the trains needed a new home – the second floor of the family’s music store on Main Street in Albemarle. He tore up the room and built tables to crawl around and under, and when the trains outgrew that space, he did the same one floor up.
Soon those tables also were lined with tracks, and Carole decided something was missing. She built houses and churches for the trains to roll past, and they added model gas stations and businesses. Eventually, they had two wide, homemade tables, each more than 30 feet long, with multiple levels and multiple landscapes. Jimmy had almost a dozen boxes to control the power and the trains. Two rows of small monitors followed their progress.
Word got around. One day, their pastor’s wife called to tell them she wanted to bring a kindergarten class over to see Jimmy’s trains. Other classes followed, and at Christmas, when Albemarle held a downtown celebration, Jimmy invited folks in. Hundreds climbed the stairs to be wowed.
About a decade ago, Jimmy decided that each Friday and Saturday, he would open the third floor for free to anyone who walked in the door. People came from Albemarle, from Stanly County, from Charlotte and beyond. Jimmy told the adults his story of a trainless boyhood, and he built a small table so the kids could have trains to touch.
“He really loved to see those kids,” Carole said Friday morning, near that table on the third floor of the Albemarle Music Store. Two months ago, on July 3, Jimmy died. He had battled several ailments in recent years. He was 76.
In the days after Jimmy’s death, it occurred to his wife that she knew very little about operating his trains. She could flip the main power switch, but the control boxes and maintenance and repairs? She was clueless. Maybe it would be best to dismantle the tracks and close the museum so she could concentrate on the music store below.
“I thought about it,” she said, as an engineer’s car powered by. Instead, she made another choice. Each Friday, Jimmy’s friend, J.W., walks up the steps to check the trains and switches and get them ready for the weekend. Last week, Carole said, a large group of kids showed up from Charlotte to see the display.
“His big-boy toys,” she said again, loud enough to be heard over the accumulation of wheels on tracks. It can get noisy in this room, with two dozen trains running at a time. Every now and then, she comes upstairs, where she can walk around and listen to the sound that filled the spaces of their lives, so long and so steady, she said, “that after a while, you don’t even hear it.”