Garden train 'a hobby in progress'
Like a lot of people, Al and Jeannie Benson have a garden in their back yard. Like a lot of gardens, there are trees, bushes, flowers and even a pond.
Unlike most gardens, however, the Plano couple also has 800 feet of large scale railroad tracks running through a myriad of wooden miniature buildings, tunnels and bridges. They also have four electric trains weaving through three miniature villages and a farm, all scaled to size.
Al Benson said he started his “garden railroad” eight years ago when a friend of his, Dave McMinn, got him interested. The elder Plano man, he said, had been operating his garden railroad for about 28 years when arthritis forced him to stop.
“He gave me the idea,” Al Benson said, adding that McMinn once worked for the railroad.
Although he never worked for the railroad himself, Al Benson said he had a railroad track around the family Christmas tree when he was growing up.
After getting some pieces from McMinn, Benson – who has worked at Docks TV & Appliance in Plano for 40 years – purchased some engines and other equipment from the old St. Aubin Trains in Woodstock and began setting up in a corner of his backyard. Most of the equipment came as kits, which he assembled easily.
“There was just the shed there when he started,” Jeannie Benson said. “He put the whole thing together. He knew where he wanted everything to go.”
Although some have very elaborate garden themes, such as a Civil War theme, Al Benson said his is just “a hodge podge.”
Jokingly referring to it as “a hobby in progress,” he said he adds a few buildings every year.
“It’s an expensive hobby,” Jeannie Benson said, adding that everything is made of cedar and not plastic. “But I always know where he’s at.”
To their surprise, they aren’t the only ones with this particular hobby.
“Mr. McMinn was the only one I knew who did this,” Al Benson said. “But they’re all over.”
In fact, the couple says there are at least 200 in the Chicago area alone, including two in Malta.
The couple, who has had their display featured in “Garden Railroad” Magazine, has met some of the others through their membership in the Chicago Area Railroad Garden Society.
Next month, the 28th National Garden Railway Convention will be held Aug. 14-19 at Pheasant Run in St. Charles. Besides clinics and social events, the group will tour a number of working garden railroads, including the Benson’s garden on Saturday, Aug. 18.
“They’ll be coming by bus,” Jeannie Benson said, adding there could be as many as 600 people attending, depending on the weather.
“Rain isn’t our friend,” Al Benson said.
For more information on the organization or the national convention, go to www.cagrs.com.
Of course, fellow railroad enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who stop by. Neighbors and townspeople are frequent visitors.
“People are very respectful,” she said, noting that several people walking by will see the garden train and stop. “They ask. They don’t just come onto the property.”
If they should be away, Jeannie Benson said with a laugh, people will leave little notes in their door, asking when the trains will run.
Al Benson said local teenagers have even asked if they could have their pictures taken by the garden railroad for prom.
Since it is a private residence and not a public park, anyone interested in seeing the garden railroad is asked to set up an appointment by calling 630-552-7294 or email@example.com.
“It’s just really peaceful,” Jeannie Benson said, about sitting in the backyard and watching the trains cruise by. “Until they crash.”
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