By Brett Peruzzi, Contributing Writer
Wenham – Rob Flanagan’s interest in model trains began when he received his first set as a Christmas present when he was a young boy, but little did he know that it would someday turn into a paying job, and one that he loves, as well.
Flanagan works part-time as the train curator at the Wenham Museum in the North Shore town of Wenham, Massachusetts. The mission of the museum is to protect, preserve and interpret the artifacts of childhood, domestic life, and the history and culture of Boston’s North Shore. The 64-year-old Beverly resident became the official train curator 12 years ago after serving as a volunteer at the museum since the late 1980s.
“As train curator I oversee the 10 permanent operating displays and temporary displays throughout the year, as well as a collection of model and toy trains and real railroad-related items,” Flanagan explained. “This involves installing, cleaning, and repairing things, and talking with visitors and answering questions.”
But while working with model trains inside a museum is an enjoyable avocation, his full-time jobs have kept him mostly outside.
“My professional career is in the green industry, working in greenhouses, at garden centers, and for the last 23 years, on my own as a landscaper, from which I am about to retire. I received a BS in plant and soil science from UMass-Amherst in 1977.”
So where did the museum’s train collection come from?
“For the most part all of the model and toy trains as well as the real train items have been donated to us over the years,” said Flanagan, “with the exception of our large North Shore and Western HO layout that was built here in place by volunteers in the late nineties.”
(A model train layout is the term used for the dioramas that are constructed by enthusiasts that contain the trains, tracks, buildings, people, and other items in the display.)
“The museum has its own collection of trains that are preserved for display and an ever-revolving collection of trains we use and operate every day,” he continued. “When we do temporary exhibits they come out of things we store to only use once in a while, as well as borrowed items and things from my own personal collection.”
Flanagan noted that in addition to the museum’s permanent displays and temporary exhibits, they also have two “visiting layouts” that outside train clubs set up for a weekend in the museum’s function hall. And also, he said, “Every other year we take over the main display gallery and put on a ‘Train Time’ exhibit for the winter. This is made up of visiting displays, lots of hands-on things and educational displays about trains around a common theme.”
“I have a very large collection of my own trains, mostly in ‘O’ gauge and standard gauge, but also a little in some other gauges,” he explained. “’O’ gauge is the gauge most people think of when they talk about Lionel trains. Standard gauge is an old gauge that was made by many companies from the early 1900s until World War II.”
Standard gauge, Flanagan noted, has been revived by a couple of companies and has gained popularity again.
“It is about twice as large as ‘O’ gauge. I have an 8 by 16 feet standard gauge layout of my own, but no place,” he admitted, “in my house to set it up, so I take it to train shows to display as well as at the museum sometimes.”
But Flanagan’s interest in trains doesn’t end with the models, toys, and other artifacts he oversees at the museum.
“I own an old caboose in North Conway, New Hampshire that is over a hundred years old that has been converted into a summer house,” he said. “I’m also a conductor for the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway. I have taken many train trips and visit railroads any time I can.”
But the work he does as the train curator at the Wenham Museum holds a special place in his heart.
“What I like most is seeing the smiles and joy our train exhibits and displays bring to visitors, especially the kids.”