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A passion that keeps on chugging

Hobby started in 1957 when man was five

By Patricia Buschette

Greg Hippen stands next to part of his model train city, which has been crafted over many years. Hippen has had a passion for model trains since he was a little boy. Photo by Patricia Buschette

The development of a hobby is often a long-term commitment. For Greg Hippen, a retired manager of software developer teams and current freelance bassist, the expertise and creativity of becoming a model railroad enthusiast goes back to Christmas in 1957, when as a five-year-old, his parents presented him with a Lionel train set.

Not only did Greg learn much about model trains and railroads at a very young age, he attributes many life skills he has learned to his father. “My father instilled in me the importance of taking care of things,” he said. “It stuck with me my entire life.”

Greg, who now lives in Mounds View, grew up in Watertown, South Dakota. His mother was a teacher who began her career as a one-room country school teacher at age 18, Over the years she continued her education, earned a Master’s degree and taught English.

Greg’s father and his train set when Greg was very young. Contributed photo

“Dad was exacting and went by the old mantra to measure twice and cut once,” Greg explained, a lesson he learned, in the value of being precise. His father, a master carpenter, was a construction superintendent who built high schools, hospitals and nursing homes. He remodeled their original home, creating an addition to their house. “I worked with him as his gopher,” Greg explained.

His father built a 4x8 foot table for the train set. “Because he had studied to be a radio repairman, he learned skills he passed down to me. He taught me electricity, the meaning of AC and DC, and how motors work. He taught me how to solder,” Greg said.

Greg became aware of the influence of train systems at an early age. Watertown was served by many railroads, he said, and he recites their names easily, “There was the Great Northern, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Chicago Northwestern, and Rock Island.”

The growth of the 1957 train set on a 4x8 foot board has been steady. Later his father built an additional section. It was all Lionel and tinplate.

The format changed in 1995 when Greg’s model railroad was changed to the HO scale. The present system is modeled after the Schuylkill branch of the Pennsylvania railroad, and designed to look as it did in 1954. “This is known as the transition era” Greg explained, “because there were both steam locomotives and diesel electric.”

The train moves through the city. Photo by Patricia Burschette

In the later years, when Greg’s daughters lived at home, they claimed a section of the Hippen basement recreation area. When they grew up and left home, Greg claimed the space. The huge sprawling railroad now covers approximately 500 square feet.

There are many creative aspects of his model railroad that has now become a series of cityscapes, scenic countrysides, and bustling industrial sites all connected with “miles” of track. There is much artistic talent involved in creating the settings for each area of activity. Trees that he has fashioned, are creatively spaced using larger trees in the foreground and smaller trees in back that blend into the painted backdrop. As trains travel from one section of the area to another, the track traverses a ledge where backdrops of mountain scenery flow into landscapes of rivers and valleys.

About eight years ago, Greg traveled to Reading Pennsylvania, and photographed several of the buildings along the Reading Railroad. He loaded the photos into his computer and printed them, creating the backdrop for his railroad. Industrial sites and scenery are populated with vintage cars, trucks, billboards, and figures of people who live and work in Greg’s sprawling 1954 world.

Greg works with the technology behind the train. Photo by Patricia Buschette

He has made connections with other railroad aficionados who gather in the basement. Participants are provided a number of cards that set forth their specific challenge; of picking up a specific locomotive, attaching the designated cars and bringing their load to the destination prescribed. Each participant carefully analyzes a specific challenge.

Via the control system, players are to manipulate engines and rail cars and deliver them to the designated destination, a process known as an operating session. It is not a contest, but rather an exercise to emulate the operations of a railroad as would have been in place in 1954. “We are all experienced operators,” he added.

“There is a user group for operators nationwide through which one can identify local operations,” he explained. “About 12 years ago, I made contact with a group and I operate on their layouts or they come to mine.”

Marcie Weinandt overlooks her husband’s miniature world. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“The process is intensive,” said Greg’s wife, Marcie Weinandt. Not hearing any activity from the group for hours, she checks on them, to find each silently engrossed in the challenge of his specific assignment.

Marcie lived near Morton before their marriage in 2015. A former Renville County Commissioner, she, like everyone who has experienced the awe of seeing Greg’s model railroad, was overwhelmed by the creativity and dedication of her husband’s hobby.

However, the operation of railroads was not new to Marcie, as she served on the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority consisting of Carver, Sibley, Renville, Redwood and Yellow Medicine counties The authority owns 94.7 miles of track from Norwood Young America to Hanley Falls.

Details of the city. Photos by Patricia Buschette

Since retiring as a software developer, Greg has turned his attention from his career to his lifelong interest in music as a freelance bassist. Since 1974 he has performed in classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, and Broadway musicals. He is a member of Music Saint Croix founded in 2003 by a group of musicians who perform in Stillwater.

If Greg is not performing in the arts, he may well be further enhancing his personal Schuylkill branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

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