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The Great Train Show closes out the year for Lake County Fairgrounds

James Signorini, 10, of Des Plaines watches over his Lionel Nickel Plate Berkshire No. 765 model train Dec. 31 during The Great Train Show at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake.
James Signorini, 10, of Des Plaines watches over his Lionel Nickel Plate Berkshire No. 765 model train Dec. 31 during The Great Train Show at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake.

GRAYSLAKE – Three-year-old Henry Treewater slowed his model train to a crawl as it approached the miniature train yard and successfully brought his train to a halt before handing back the controller, a broad grin on his face.

His eyes never left the model trains as he reluctantly stepped away from the tracks to make room for another child to take his place. As far as 3-year-olds go, there was no better way to spend the final day of the year.

“I like making it speed,” he confided.

Joe Montilla from Augusta Track oversaw the 180-foot model train layout, calling out instructions to the pint-sized conductors trying their hand at operating one of four model trains at Augusta Track’s booth at the annual Great Train Show at the Lake County Fairgrounds.

“We like to play with the trains,” he said. “But the idea is get more kids playing with the trains, get the kids interested.”

Montilla sees another train rapidly approaching the train yard being operated by a very focused young boy.

“Slow down, you gotta slow down,” Montilla instructed, then a beat later: “OK, you’re ready to go. Just go slow.”

“That’s the thing about letting the little kids run [the trains],” he added with a smile. “You have some of them who like to go full speed, and you have some of them who go very, very slow all the way around.”

The hall at the fairgrounds is alive with train whistles, chugging engines and the delighted laughs of children who are darting from one model train layout to another. Weaving between the strollers and the children are the people for whom model trains are more of a passion than a hobby.

The Great Train Show is a place for these hobbyists to exchange trade secrets, add to their collection or simply just be around people who share their passion. The show was launched in 2004 and is the only show of its kind that travels across the nation. Since 2014, it has been managed by Train Show Inc., which also manages Chicago’s “Great Midwest Train Show” and “The World’s Greatest Hobby on Tour,” among others.

Hobbyists attending the show range from amateur to near-professional. Jonathan Treubig is a vendor at the show, standing behind the booth for his company, Phoenix Unlimited Ltd. – a company that sells specialty lubricants and squeeze bottles designed specifically for model trains – but he cannot hide his passion for model trains.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 7 years old,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of years.”

A resident of Huntley in McHenry County, Treubig says his love of model trains is passed down from his father, who would task Treubig with the more intricate repairs that child hands could complete more nimbly. Now, Treubig says, a portion of his basement is dedicated to his train layouts as is his coffee table and much of his backyard.

Treubig’s wife, Jill, is not as avid a model train hobbyist as her husband, but she appreciates the craft and the skill required to construct his layouts. She circles around the table at the show, examining the trains and searching for any issues with the tracks. She spots one and calls to Treubig.

“You need to smooth [the track] out over here,” she says. “Smooth it out. See right there? There’s a bump there.”

The Treubigs began attending shows as vendors in 2008 and travel across the Midwest and areas of the East Coast. Jill says they’ve gone as far as Texas.

“It can be hard work, but it’s fun,” she says of the hobby she married into. “The kids are adorable; the trains are adorable. They’re neat: the big ones, the little ones. The detail in the trains, the details in the scenery. … You can make Colorado in your backyard or on your dining room table. Or you could make Arizona, if that’s your favorite place to be.”

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