Carmel couple turn love of trains into new business
Local couple’s pastime blossoms into a successful business and regional attraction with Mr. Muffin’s Trains
By Dawn Pearson
Mr. Muffin’s Trains has come to Carmel to introduce the hobby to a new audience of potential train enthusiasts.
Mr. Muffin’s Trains tripled the size of its space when it moved from a 1,600-square-foot station to a 5,400-square-foot depot located at 1113 Third Ave. SW. The new location will allow the store to display the entire train collection and to build and operate a larger train layout, according to owner Steve Nelson.
“In my mind, this hobby is an art – just like the Doll House Museum and the art galleries in Carmel,” he said. “It just made good sense for us to stay in Carmel.”
The concept quickly gained popularity, attracting large groups of scout troops, church groups and retirement home residents who made regular visits.
“Mr. Muffin’s Trains is all about sharing our train collection and operating layout with our community,” Steve said.
Supporting child development
After becoming a model train dealer in November, Mr. Muffin’s Trains needed more space, not just for retail sales but also for other services.
“We now have space for conducting clinics on layout and scenery construction. We are here to introduce the hobby of model railroading to the community,” Steve said. “It’s very unique in my opinion, it can be a terrific family activity and it supports a child’s (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skill development.”
“Through model railroading, one gets to learn about and practice planning, designing, engineering, project management, geometry, wood working, model making, electricity, scenery construction and other artistic endeavors,” he said.
Steve Nelson and wife Liz Nelson’s collection began in the basement of their home, and as word spread in the community, the collection outgrew the basement.
“The space was really too crowded for large groups, and being in our home it was somewhat limiting,” Steve said. “The new location is large enough for organizations like scout troops, church groups and retirement home residents to make regular visits. We are more of a museum than a store, sort of a museum with a museum shop.”
Becoming a regional attraction
Steve Nelson also thinks that Mr. Muffin’s Trains is unique.
“Most train stores or hobby shops across the United States have a very small investment in an operating layout and their support for the hobby. For them, it’s all about sales,” he said. “At Mr. Muffin’s Trains, we have one of the largest operating layouts built for public display outside of the New York City area. We have more trains in our collection on display than you will find anywhere else in the country.”
It’s possible Mr. Muffin’s Trains could become a regional or even national attraction.
“We have one of the largest collections in the country and one of the largest public display train layouts. The Lionel Collectors Club of America hosts its annual convention next summer in Indianapolis and they will be bringing busloads of their members to Carmel,” Steve said. “There are a lot of business people in the hobby who visit when they are in the Indianapolis area, and we have a lot of families that either bring their grandkids or their grandparents to visit when they are in town.”
A rare occurrence
The majority of the business’s shoppers and visitors are families with children, grandparents with grandchildren and children with developmental challenges and their caretakers, and some hobbyists.
Carmel resident and mother Shelly Henley said she visits Mr. Muffin’s Trains with her 17-year-old son who has autism.
“Trains are very calming for him. Since he was a toddler he’s loved trains like many people on the autistic spectrum,” she said. “He has always loved trains because of how trains are arranged in lines, how the cars are connected and the orderly and predictable-ness of playing with them.”
Henley said her son has found kindred spirits for the love of this mini world in owners Steve and Liz Nelson, who have reached out to him and included him.
“He adores visiting Mr. Muffin’s Trains. He loves watching and controlling the trains. Because of his disability he’s not very expressive, but you can feel the joy coming off of him when he’s there,” Henley said. “It makes me so happy to see him walking around smiling, a rare occurrence.”
Steve Nelson has noticed, too.
“As a result of seeing that our trains have been a real attraction for children with autism, our plan is to work with the autistic training resources already in our community to help teach and apply job training skills,” he said.
We can help, for sure
“Most of our sales are mail order by hobbyists around the country that we already know buying from us to help support us promoting the hobby,” Steve Nelson said.
But that doesn’t mean there is little to buy at the store. And the Nelsons even bought a van to help people deliver and install layout tables in their own home or business.
“I expect early next year we will be doing scenery workshops as we work on the scenery on our layout, and offer assistance for people that need help with the wood working to build the layout structure,” Steve said.
Nelson also envisions workshops for the Boy Scouts on the railroading merit badge. Another workshop might prove to be a good place for fathers and sons to work on pinewood derby cars, he said.
“If you’re interested in getting into the hobby, we can help, for sure – but this whole thing is about playing with my trains,” Steve said.
‘Crossroads of America’ – Indiana first earned the title during the 19th century, and long before there were Interstate highways, because of all its railroads.
Trains under the Christmas tree? – Over 100 years ago, Joshua Lionel Cowen wasn’t trying to sell model trains for the holidays, he was trying to sell window animation for the big retailers’ display windows in New York City. The retailers wanted animation in their windows to get holiday shoppers to stop and look at their items for sale, so Lionel used a motor intended for an electric fan to power a model train and sold several of them to area merchants. Customers started coming in and asking to buy the train on display.
Hardware stores, not toy stores – Because of the electrical nature of the train layouts, the early dealers weren’t toy stores or hobby shops, they were hardware stores and electrical supply places. Eventually radio and early TV dealers were the places people went to buy model trains.
Monon origins – Before it was a trail, it was the Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville Railroad. The word Monon derives from Potawatomi Indian words that sounded to the first settlers like metamonong or monong and seemingly meant tote, or swift running. In 1882, the railroad started printing the Monon route on company maps, later naming itself “Monon – The Hoosier Line” on timetables, letterheads and rolling stock.
SOURCE: Mr. Muffin’s Trains
By the numbers
Mr. Muffin’s Trains crowd favorites are any of the Empire State Express Hudsons, or the Pere Marquette Berkshire road number 1225. This engine was saved from the scrapper’s torch because of its road number; then later restored. It is now operating in Michigan and is the basis for the famous Polar Express. But there is more to the collection than that.
Number of models in the collection
Number of model train engines in the collection
Number of passenger cars in the collection
Number of Class 1 railroads that ran through Indiana
Number of trains that can run on the new layout at the same time
Display shelving length for the train collection, once complete
Number of models of “Billboard” refrigerated boxcars, called Reefers
Mr. Muffin’s Trains
146 W. Carmel Dr.