Rail player: Lawrence resident’s passion for trains spans decades

Jim Budde grew up in Nebraska and vividly remembers the role of trains in everyday life. Trains are a passion for Budde, who has a scale train set at his home on Wildwood Drive. He uses a remote control to make the trains run on time.

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo Detail rail yard and scene of town in background.

Our 4-year old son is like any other young boy, enthusiastic about cars and planes. He thinks dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers are Mother Nature’s gifts to earth.

But when it comes to an activity that grabs his attention and keeps it, look no further than the train. His train track weaves under the furniture, through the bookshelves, over the dog’s bed and under the coffee table.

As you can imagine, we trip, stumble and tumble daily trying to maneuver through his self-made maze of twists, turns and endless possibilities. It is teetering on criminal to get angry when we do stub our toes, though, because the sheer wealth of skills he is honing while building and rebuilding.

Jim Budde shares this time-honored hobby with our son — just add 60 or so years, an entire room in his house, thousands upon thousands of hours devoted to the rails and an undeniable passion.

Budde grew up in a time when the train whistle was as common and precise as the sun setting and rising.

“The trains ran behind our house. Ninety percent of everything came in on trains — coal, furniture, everything but perishables,” he says. “We had no money and couldn’t afford a car until I was 16, so we rode the passenger car. Back then there were soldiers and sailors smoking as they traveled. It was the event of the day when the trains would come in.”

That is why Budde’s elaborate train scene depicts July 1951, when the great flood of Kansas occurred. All of the miniature cars are from that era, as are the buildings, the roads and, of course, the tracks. He even has blueprints to aid in accurately portraying the time.

There is a romanticism that trains had in those years, a call to the great unknown, and during that time the rails from Topeka through Lawrence to Kansas City were a bustle of supplies and passengers chugging their way across our vast landscape.

The train set in Jim Budde’s basement is true to scale, including this old view of Union Station in Kansas City.

Budde remembers his first train.

“I got a Lionel when I was probably 12,” he says. “Then my dad and his friends would give me money to go to the movies so they could play with my trains.”

He relishes in the knowledge that wide-eyed kids all over the world are busily creating with trains they obtained this holiday.

“A child that receives a train will inherit so many fabulous skills, reading, writing, science, history, sculpture, painting and math,” he says. “Some of that stuff in the early stages is just raw play, before the electronics get involved. It is so constructive and creative for a child.”

Budde’s project is never finished. He is currently constructing a Union Station replica from parts of various other structures. If he is curious or uncertain about an area, he’ll research or even go inspect the tracks, scouting out the terrain in order to recreate his model with accuracy. He paints the landscapes that the trains whiz by. He weathers the cars of the trains and fashions miniature trees and rivers.

This is truly a passion, with a bathroom, refrigerator and TV all handy some days his wife Jane rarely sees him.

Jane says, “Yesterday he was down here from 10 a.m. to midnight. I just called him upstairs for meals.”

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo Jim Budde, has scaled down everyting as this locomotive seems small for Budde's large hands.

As expected, the family has taken quite a few train trips, including a trip to Chicago for their daughter’s 16th birthday, a trip on the Narrow Gauge in Silverton, Colo., a trip on the transcontinental across Canada and a trip to Winslow, Ariz., by rail.

Budde says of train travel, “There’s no road rage on a train. It is very relaxing. If you’ll notice that on the whole most towns in the U.S. are about 6 miles apart, because that was about as far as a horse and buggy could take you. Granted not all of those towns still exist today. The trains changed all that, they changed the face of our nation.”

While youngsters may have a newfound love of trains after Christmas, Budde is a old pro. If your house is anything like the Budde household, you better start building that addition, because the trains are rumbling into town and the fun is never finished it only grows and grows and grows.

— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.