By Mary Ann Bourbeau
FAIR HAVEN – It’s not unusual to see Monarch butterflies in Michael Humphreys’ backyard. But the fairies and dragons, that’s another story.
While the butterflies are real, the fairies and dragons are part of a landscaped model railroad scene that takes up most of Humphreys’ fenced-in yard. A virtual train town with 300 feet of track covers a 40-by-60-foot area of the yard, landscaped with real plants, flowers and miniature trees such as dwarf Alberta spruce.
“When I was growing up in England, I had H-0 scale trains, but then I gave it up for many years,” Humphreys said. “In 1994, when my son was 6 years old, I bought my first big-scale train.”
Humphreys thought it would be a fun experience for the two of them to share.
“He didn’t have the slightest interest,” Humphreys said.
Humphreys decided to pursue his hobby anyway. He began putting his train set on display for kids at area schools. Before he knew it, he bought more and more pieces. In 2006, Humphreys planted a magnolia tree and mapped out the plans for the town around it.
With the blessing of his wife, Aimee, Humphreys soldiered on. He named the display the Fair Haven Frog Bay Railroad because he used to have frogs in the pond until a heron came in his yard one day and either ate or chased them away.
The G-scale trains run on two oval tracks through the yard, around the magnolia tree, past the waterfall and mini forest, and alongside the water lilies in a pond containing goldfish. An old western city sits just past the trestle, complete with 20 buildings including a schoolhouse, hotel, church and the requisite saloon. Scattered among the display are a stagecoach, windmill, water tower and a teepee plus plenty of people and farm animals. Though they don’t fit in with the decor, Humphreys added some fairies and dragons, hoping it might spur his daughter’s interest in trains. His second child had no interest either, but he left the decorations anyway.
“I like fairies and I like dragons,” he said.
Since he retired in 2010 from his job as a salesman for point-of-sale computerized registers, Humphreys spends about two hours a day tinkering with the display, and also planting or weeding.
“I call it a garden with a railroad in it,” he said. “I have as much fun doing the gardening as I do with the trains. It’s interesting to look at and it gives it the right impact.”
Aimee Humphreys thinks the display is beautiful. “It’s a wonderful outlet for him,” she said. “Now that he’s retired, it’s a good way to spend his time and keep busy. It’s something we enjoy every night, watching the trains and listening to the water, and it’s quite a conversation piece.”
The trains run on AC power and Humphreys controls them with a wireless remote.
“It has digital sound, so it has recordings of actual locomotives of that style, with whistles, bells and choo-choo sounds,” he said. “You can hear the engineer shoveling coal and the brakes screeching. The sound is astonishing.”
Humphreys buys his trains from a German company called LGB, which he refers to as “the Cadillac of trains.” He chose a western theme for his display because of his fondness for western movies.
“Now, every time I watch one, I’m looking very carefully at the town views to see if I got it right,” he said.
What keeps him busy these days is repairing the damage from Super Storm Sandy. A large tree fell in his yard and, though Humphreys had taken most of the trains and buildings inside, much of the track was damaged, as was the roof on his own home. When the tracks are repaired and the trains are up and running again, his next project will be a big one – putting lights in all the buildings.
“I’ll never be done,” he said. “I’ll always be tweaking.” As with any hobby, putting together a project like this takes not only time but money. Humphreys estimates he has spent about $15,000 since he bought the first train in 1994.
“It’s really not that much when it’s spread out,” he said. “And it’s fun to sit out here with a few drinks and watch the trains go around.”