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Celebrating 21 Years!

 

Choo Choo Barn --- A Lot to "Choo" On

 

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 they do.

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 www.choochoobarn.com.) No 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 family business.

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 yourself!    

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