Like Esther’s, Millvale is a town in the middle of transition. The transition that appears to be going well, considering everything that has gone wrong for this town over the past few decades: job losses, a flood that wiped out half of the Main Street businesses, an aging population that was dying off.And model railroading is no longer -- if ever it was -- a niche business for obsessive craftsmen only.
For years, people have been writing off the town as mired in the past and unable to grow – sort of like model railroading, for which story after story suggests the hobby is dying and unable to sustain itself.
Both stories are only partly true. For 30 years, Millvale had been on the decline but — given its proximity to the river, a trail that connects to Washington, D.C., and its charming Main Street grid filled with historic buildings graced by unique architecture — young people noticed and started investing in the town.
Bob Leonard of Ft. Lauderdale visited the store on his way to Altoona, Pa., for a structure show. “What they have done with technology today to help the hobbyist to construct buildings is transforming the industry,” he explains. He and four friends marvel at [proprietor Bob] Mehler’s stock as they walk up and down the aisles of the store.That reference to running trains from smart 'phones is correct. I saw a control system called Blue Rail at a recent convention. The application allows for control of the train from the swipe pad on the 'phone, and the sound of the locomotive comes from the 'phone, obviating the speaker and sound module that would otherwise have to be hidden somewhere in the model.
Technology now allows savvy enthusiasts to run their trains from their iPhones, and 3-D printing will soon empower hobbyists to create scenery, custom trains, and track systems.
Mehler raised six children on the third floor of his business that kept them all fed, educated, and safe. He chokes up, recounting the highs and lows of his life here behind the counter of this hobby shop, from the struggles his mother faced to the loss of the love of his life nearly two decades ago.
With Christmas coming, may there be trains under and around your trees.