When Tom Groff was a little boy, he never
imagined that his father's "hobby" would one day become the family's
business. But now, Tom and his family oversee one of Amish Country's
favorite visitor attractions in Strasburg. When guests walk through the
curtains in the lobby, they enter a world at once familiar, yet unlike
anything they've seen before.
A Family Tradition
It seems only fitting that this experience
of Lancaster County in miniature was started over 45 years ago by one of the
oldest families in the area. The Groffs can trace their history back to the
1700's, along with the descendents of Hans Herr. As a Strasburg resident,
Tom is proud of his lineage and this family-owned attraction that brings so
much joy to children and adults.
Choo Choo Barn history goes back to shortly
after the end of World War II, when veteran George Groff came back home and
thought an electric toy train set would be fun for his two-year-old son,
Gary. Dad kept expanding the layout and reserved a portion of the basement
for it when the family moved into a new home in 1953, now with second son
Tom and his sister. Dad started work on the layout each October so that the
new display would be ready for Christmas. Residents and kids from the local
school came to see it every year.
The Trains Move to a Barn
It wasn't long before Gary was ready for
college, and Dad thought his popular layout might be a source of income,
especially with the Strasburg Rail Road now attracting tourists to town. And
so, he purchased a small barn he often drove by, and moved the train layout
there from his house. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1961, when George's "Choo
Choo Barn" opened with six trains, six animated displays, and an admission
of 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
The three children were required to help
with the business, especially when running the Choo Choo Barn became
George's main occupation. Tom helped with the miniatures and other aspects
of the layout, basically learning by doing from around the age of eleven. At
21, Tom spent four years trying other work, but came back to the railroad,
got married in 1973, and took over the business in 1979. Tom and wife Linda
were not satisfied just to keep the attraction as it was. Over the years,
they have continued to expand both the layout, and the surrounding buildings
into a mecca for those who love model railroading, and those who don't know
A Passion for Detail
Folks, this is much more than a bunch of
trains going in circles. This layout is the loving product of the spirited
sense of fun and creativity that Tom still shares with visitors to this day.
It's all about blood, sweat, and tears. Tom almost cut off his thumb working
on a layout over the winter one year, but managed not to miss "opening day."
He has sweated over many meticulous recreations of buildings and scenery,
including recently working over 100 hours creating a miniature Ferris wheel.
And tears? They are tears of joy as Tom revels in the fun and excitement he
sees in the faces of kids and visitors.
It is not unusual for visitors to spend 45
minutes walking around the layout trying to absorb all the details.
Thousands of miniature people populate the scenes, and there are over 150
animations, almost all the one-of-a-kind creations of George and Tom.
Skiers, fireman who speed to douse a fire, circus performers, Amish raising
a barn --- there is so much going on that you can't possibly take it all in.
And there are plenty of animals, from those pacing in their cages at the
zoo, to those performing under the big top.
Lancaster in Miniature
Adults will recognize some of the local
Lancaster County attractions, including Dutch Wonderland Amusement Park and
the Strasburg Rail Road itself. George always wanted the layout to reflect
local scenes and landmarks. Most recently, Tom went and took a ton of photos
of the Strasburg Station, with a special stick he uses to gauge the scale,
and meticulously reproduced the current Strasburg Rail Road in miniature.
Close-up photographs have fooled some people into thinking they were looking
at the actual station! The train stops for water, and they chugs off,
switching to hook up at the opposite end of the train for the return trip.
Most visitors don't even think about the complexity of relays and signals
that are required for these movements to happen flawlessly, eight hours a
day, seven days a week. In the back, Tom showed me a foot square control box
filled with his ingenious system of wires and relays to make just this small
section of the display come to life.
The King of Animations
The animated scenes and action figures, some
barely an inch high, are something Tom and visitors love. I found the Amish
barn, covered with little men hammering away, an amazing tableau alone worth
a visit, yet just one of many. Like the imagineers at Disney, Tom gets an
idea, sketches it out, realizes it in model form, figures out the mechanics
and electronics, decides on the materials, then builds, decorates and
installs the finished product. Except, of course, that Tom pretty much does
all of this himself. (You can observe photos taken as Tom works on building
new miniatures by going to the website at
wonder Tom Groff is the local "King of Animations." Lionel Trains even liked
a couple of Tom's original animations so much that they visited him to
arrange permission to make and sell them commercially.
A Model Shop
Over the years, Tom and Linda learned by
experience how to find the things they needed to build their model railroad.
When they opened their hobby shop, they stocked it with all the hard-to-find
items that they had found, and that amateur model railroaders wanted. Now
the large shop is a popular stop for those looking for the "detail," as well
as those who may get bitten by the model railroad bug after a visit to the
Choo Choo Barn.
More than a Hobby
Tom believes that model railroading is a
unique hobby, in that it offers so much to learn. Besides learning about the
trains themselves, you need knowledge and skill with electricity, designing
and decorating, electronics, architecture, tools, creativity, problem
solving, and crafting. Tom has been known to change the angle of a toy
crane, even move the handle on a miniature coffin at the cemetery scene, all
because a visitor commented that it wasn't just right. The fact that Tom
will take attention to detail to that level is one of the reasons that
people are so captivated by the display.
If you are lucky enough to see Tom, he may
show you around, pointing out all kinds of interesting details. Tom turns
into a little boy, bubbling with excitement, enthusiasm, and fun. He really
loves this stuff, and his passion for it is contagious. "Here's a scene I
did to commemorate my son Kevin's getting stopped for speeding in Strasburg.
Look, there's the car pulled off the road, the police vehicle's lights
flashing..." (I think this may have been something I was not to mention in
my article.) His daughter, Kristi, has apparently not yet turned up in the
layout, but is very much involved in the promotion and marketing of the
A New Day Dawns
While you are at the display, there will
come a time when all the sound effects quiet down, the lights dim, and a
hush falls as the entire room darkens. The layout is lit under a starry sky
(and I do mean stars hanging over your head). Just when you thought there
wasn't much more that could happen, the entire scene is transformed. And
then, a few seconds later, the miniature world that the Groffs have created
comes roaring back to life. And what new change to the display does Tom have
planned for next year? You'll just have to come back and see for
Return to the Feature