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The Gazette KCRG
Posted March 28, 2012
Model Railroading Becomes Full-time Vocation

CEDAR RAPIDS — The feel of rolling thunder on the rails, the smell of creosote from the ties, the wail of a fading whistle.

Darren Ferreter can close his eyes to relive the days his father hauled him off to experience the wonder of life-size trains.

Or, he can open his eyes to a model railroad he’s created since building them became his job nearly two years ago.

Yes, Darren, 43, has parlayed a childhood interest into a vocation many model railroad hobbyists would envy.

“It started when I was about four years old,” he says. “As I was growing up, we would do trips out to watch trains.”

At first, he watched his father’s Lionel train set. Then, Darrell Ferreter took his son to see the real things in Cheyenne, Wyo., North Platte, Neb., and Galesburg, Ill. where tracks run in seven directions.

“My father took a lot of photographs and still does,” Darren says. “It was the joy of the hunt. With cameras in those days you got one or two shots and it was gone.”

But, for Darren, life took over. That meant graduating from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, a stint in the Air Force, marriage, three children, divorce, working long hours in food service management at Mercy Medical Center and Coe College.

He dabbled in the hobby while in the service in Omaha, home for the Union Pacific, by painting models for railroad enthusiasts. That fueled his impulse to try it full time.

“Even a 4-by-8-foot layout has to have a design,” he reasons with a laugh.

So, like the little engine that could, he kept going, bigger and better, until he has nearly a dozen regular clients and many one-time ones. It has been full steam ahead in HO scale, building a layout for the “All Aboard” exhibit at the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville and a replica of downtown Marion for the Marion Heritage Center. He’s also modeled private layouts after Fort Wayne, Ind., and north central Pennsylvania.

“People call me either because they don’t have the time or the talent or the know-how to build their dream,” Darren says. “They seek out my assistance to help with any part of that.”

One client, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “I’m pretty mechanical, but the thought of doing this by myself was overwhelming.”

So Darren dug in to help build the table, lay the wooden rail beds so the curves are gentle enough to prevent derailments, make mountains on chicken wire, design street scenes from historic photographs. The Pennsylvania layout, which can be the 1930s or the 1950s, depending on which trains run, includes a working roundhouse, a hobo jungle and genuine, finely-crushed Pennsylvania coal.

“I’ll build anything people want,” Darren says, “but most of my clients have an idea of what they want and we’ll go from there.”

Costs generally range from $25 to $50 for a quick solution, he says, to thousands of dollars for an elaborate design and layout. (He received $3,500 to build the children’s museum layout.)

Sophistication and detail have always been the hallmark of HO gauge (1/87th size) model railroads, whether owners set a steady speed or operate their “railroads” on rigid schedules. But now days you’ve got specific Internet interest groups and digital electronics that can control several locomotives at one time.

One thing, however, will most likely never change and that’s the desire to always improve and add on to a layout.

“I don’t care if you have an entire gymnasium,” Darren laughs, “you’re always going to want another four feet.”

Comments: (319) 398-8323; dave.rasdal@sourcemedia.net

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