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September 8, 2011

These aren’t your granddad’s train sets.

The nation’s top train and landscape modelers are descending on Hickory this weekend for the 31st annual National Narrow Gauge Convention.

Event planners say the convention will bring more than 2,000 people to the Hickory area, and four area hotels are already full.

It is the first time the annual convention has been held in the southeast and world-renowned modelers will have large- and small-scale layouts for the public to view, said Matt Bumgarner, secretary of the local chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

In addition to the train layouts, the convention will feature over 350 vendors selling models, books, videos, memorabilia and building supplies, among other things. There will also be a model contest featuring some of the best narrow gauge designers in the world, Bumgarner said.

The most eye-catching and “photogenic” aspect of the convention will be the room with the narrow gauge layouts, Bumgarner said. The room features 18 different railroading model layouts from Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, Ohio and Australia. The layouts differ in gauge and span from 10-foot long replicas to models that could fill a warehouse.

“It will blow your mind how intricate and advanced these layouts are,” Bumgarner said.

Sundance Central, a group of designers from Odessa, Fla., brought a layout that is made up of dozens of modules that form a small town. The group’s old-timey and country scene features a railroad that runs through a foothills town from the mid-1900s. Everything is detailed – down to individual grains of dirt and blades of grass.

One end of the layout features an open shed that houses a carpenter or blacksmith hard at work. There is heavy machinery, a cabinet with a “keep out” sign and an old and worn license plate hanging up on the wall – all custom made and detailed by hand.

Frank Palmer, a Sundance modeler, said the group first displayed its piece in 2004 at a show in Tampa, Fla. Though it started as individual modelers assigned to their own sections, Palmer said the project has become a group effort.

“We got rid of individual ownership and it really became a group project,” Palmer said. “We really incorporated ourselves, and now, if you leave the group, you get $1 and the piece stays with (Sundance).”

Convention officials said there are only two or three modular designs like Sundance’s in the country.

Most model designers said their experience with modeling began as a hobby, but has grown to much more. The professionals present on Wednesday said they have spent years perfecting their designs.

“It’s a hobby that urges on fanaticism,” said Lee Rainey, a modeler from Pennsylvania. Rainey said his group’s first layout had three pieces six years ago. Now, the display has more than 40 pieces. “The pieces live with their owners in different parts of the country, and then we put them together when we all get together for a convention.”

Roger Cutter, a designer from Maryland, became interested in railroad modeling when he was 7 and said he has been doing it ever since. His team was made up of modelers from Virginia, Maryland and New Zealand.

When he’s not at a convention, four sections of his team’s model sit in his great room at home, Cutter said. The 2011 convention is the first time Cutter’s team’s complete layout will be displayed.

“It’s relaxing – normally,” Cutter said, adding that he was involved in a graduate student’s dissertation on life longevity versus modeling. “It’s a very social group, and I really enjoy it.”

One member of Cutter’s group is from New Zealand, something he said is not unusual to the conventions.

“It’s not unusual to have Sweden, Norway or New Zealand represented at this convention every year,” he said.

Bill Miller, who co-chairs the 2011 convention’s executive committee, said most of the modelers do three to five shows a year.

“The convention is a big deal to them,” he said.

The convention opened Wednesday at the Hickory Metro & Convention Center. It will re-open at 8 a.m. today and continues through Saturday.

The show is open to the public and registration can be made at the door, Bumgarner said. The entire convention costs $110, but individual day passes are available for $35. On Saturday morning, admission is $10, with children under 12 being admitted for free.

For more information, visit or call 828-244-6944.

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