Running through the sleepy town of Mount Madonna, the Shay engine powers the locomotive as local residents laze in the summer sun at the nearby creek, while others are hard at work at the town’s booming businesses: the mining company, sawmill and lumber company. The architect behind this 1:20 scale town, and the railroad that travels through it, is Nigel Mallinson, 65, co-owner of C and N Tractors in Watsonville.
Mallinson is a member of the South County District’s Bay Area Garden Railway Society (BAGRS), founded in 1988 with the goal of promoting garden railroading throughout the Bay Area. BAGRS is made up of 10 districts, and Mallinson is superintendent of the Gilroy and Hollister area, the South Santa Clara/San Benito district.
Traditionally, every summer each district hosts an open house, spotlighting local members’ backyards where visitors can view railroad layouts. Garden railroads differ from the more traditional model railroads in that they meld gardening, model building and track installation, making it a hobby to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Another obvious difference is that garden railroading allows hobbyists a larger venue, the outdoors, to showcase their creative layouts.
This year, the South County district hosts its 24th annual Garden Railroad open house on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 9am-3pm. The tour features four local garden railroads, two in Gilroy and two in Hollister.
Not only does the tour provide a glimpse into the fascinating world of garden railroads, it also serves as a fundraising event for two local food banks. The donation of a canned food item is the only requirement to take part in the tour. Monetary donations and gift cards are also welcomed.
As in past years all proceeds are donated to St. Joseph’s Family Center in Gilroy, and the Community Pantry in Hollister.
“We’re the only district that does the benefit with the canned food drive,” Mallinson said, adding that last year’s event raised $1,400 and took in 800 pounds of food.
“They share their hard work and incredible designs to better their own communities,” said Vicky Martin, director of community engagement at St. Joseph’s Family Center.
“The result is food for our community and financial resources that our clients need, and the awareness that there is a need in our community just by having the event.”
Providing support to communities in need is in large part the motivation behind the annual event.
“There are so many people that really need help nowadays,” Gilroy resident and BAGRS member Robert Elia, 78, said, adding he’s been taking part in the annual tours for the past 11 years.
“If we can do a little bit, we’re happy to do it,” Elia said.
Elia also enjoys sharing his hobby with the children who accompany their parents on the tour.
“I enjoy the heck out of it,” he said, “watching the young kids and seeing their faces light up. I think that’s the most enjoyable thing I like about doing the outdoor open house.”
For garden railroader and Hollister resident Kevin Hill, 28, giving back to the community is a great incentive to continue his participation in the annual event.
“A lot of these centers they get a lot of donations during the holiday season, but the rest of the year they’re kind of on their own,” Hill said, adding that his interest in trains began when he was a child.
“The whole thing started when I was 4, with the Lionel train set under the Christmas tree,” he said.
Hill’s interest in trains never wavered. It even crossed over to his career as a locomotive engineer in Watsonville. Hill’s interest in the hobby emerged more than a decade ago, after watching a PBS program that featured garden railroaders.
“My family and I just thought that was so cool, and eventually we built one of our own,” Hill said. “We started construction on our garden railroad in 2005. It kind of started because all the stuff was set up on the living room floor and we had to have a place for it.”
One event in particular stands out for Hill. In 2016 the South County district was invited to participate in the National Garden Railway Convention held that year in San Jose.
“We had two tour buses that showed up in front of the house,” Hill said. “We had people from Europe, South America, Australia. We had about 1,500 people come through.”
Hollister resident Roger Stump, 71, is also part of the tour this year, making this the eighth time he’s participated in the annual event. Stump became interested in railroading soon after he retired in 2004.
“I just like doing the layout work, designing,” Stump said, adding that he also enjoys sharing his interest with people in his neighborhood.
“Really the biggest delight is when the kids come and you get to watch them as they follow the train and try to see where it’s going.”
Additional information regarding the tour, including addresses for all four garden railroad displays, can be found in the 2018 Garden Railroad Tour guidebook. Guidebooks are available by email at: [email protected], or pick one up at BookSmart in Morgan Hill or Garden Accents in Gilroy.