Skip to main content

San Angelo Lifestyles

A Lifetime Love of Trains

written by ellen slater | photos by carol michele photography

When San Angelo resident, 
Charlie Millspaugh, was just a young boy growing up in Kansas, his Dad would take him to the depot each night to watch the trains come and go. Charlie’s Dad was fascinated by the locomotives. He in turn, passed that love of trains onto his son. For Charlie, that early exposure to trains turned into a lifetime hobby of collecting, building, and displaying model trains. 

Millspaugh, who turned 74 last year, received his first model train set at the age of four, and was instantly hooked. “Growing up, I always had a train set in my bedroom, and I’ve had huge sets on display in the basement of every home  I’ve owned,” he said. However, upon moving to San Angelo 12 years ago, to care for his elderly mother, the train modeler quickly learned there were no basements in Texas! So, he decided to assemble the new railroad display outside of his home. “This model railway took me eight years to build. It’s 2,000 feet of track, is modeled after the Santa Fe Railroad, and portrays a desert scape,” said Millspaugh. “Our entire backyard is the town – we have more than 50 buildings, cars, scenery and people.” Millspaugh owns 80 train engines and more than 400 railroad cars. What’s not on display outside his home is stored in an upstairs bedroom
on shelves he custom-made to fit each engine or car.

According to experts from the National Model Railroads Association, building model railways requires a specific skill set, including but not limited to, research and planning, woodworking, electrical skills, artistry and modeling. Where did Millspaugh acquire these skills? “As a boy, a lot of it was trial and error,” he stated. Millspaugh graduated from Pittsburgh State University in Pittsburgh, Kansas where he studied as an electrician. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy as an electrician during the Vietnam War. Upon returning home, he married his first wife and quickly began to build a family (the couple had two daughters together). Sadly, this marriage ended in divorce, but Millspaugh remarried and had two more daughters. “We were living in Washington State at the time, which was too far from our families, hers was from Minnesota and mine from Kansas – so we decided to move somewhere in the middle – Lincoln, Nebraska,” he laughed.  And that move, as it turns out, led to Charlie landing what he describes as an “ideal” job for him, considering his love of model trains. “I got a job as a model train distributor for Hartland Hobby selling to train stores all over the country,” he explained. “I was there for about eight years –we sold Lionel, Marx, H.O and American Flyer.” 

Millspaugh’s next job also revolved around his love of model trains. “I owned a custom model train painting business for the next 30 years,” he said. “My clients would send me pictures of the actual large - scale train engine or car they wanted, and I would paint them up and detail them as exact replicas.”According to Millspaugh, in the world of model train collectors,there is quite a demand for such services. “Many of my clients wanted to add models of actual engines and cars that are one-of-a-kind to their collection. In other words, no one had ever made an exact model replica of them,” he stated. “Also, many of them wanted their replicas modeled after small railroads that were unique to their own part of the country. They couldn’t purchase them from model train distributors, so they had me make them exact replicas.”

To care for his mother, Charlie decided to retire and move to San Angelo where he found the friendliness of its people and warmer climate quite appealing. He also ended up re-establishing contact with his former high school sweetheart, Ruth, and the couple married nine years ago. Retirement gave Millspaugh the opportunity to focus 
full-time on model trains. 

He is a member of both the Santa Fe  Modeler’s Association and the National Garden Modeler’s Association. And makes it a point to attend their annual conventions each year. “I’ve gotten a lot of my rolling stock (engines and train cars) at these conventions, as well as from train distributors and from on-line purchases,” he said. “There are usually anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people at the conventions, and it’s nice to visit with people who share the same hobby.” According to the collector, his favorite aspect of the train modeling is painting and detailing the train engines and cars. 

“Next would have to be building the actual track and running the trains,” he said. “I tell people anytime the gates to our home are open that means the trains are running and they’re welcome to come in. The trains are here for people to see and enjoy!” According to Millspaugh, he generally has five to eight groups of people who visit each day the trains are running.“I’m getting a little too old to build a new railway, but I do plan to keep adding onto this one as long as I’m able!” †
Upcoming Events Near You
Digital Issue Spring 2020