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Rural Missouri Magazine

A Model World
Arnold Kistner creates a new world with his model trains

by Jarrett Medlin
Arnold Kistner rides his largest train around his yard. The 43-year-old collects and builds model trains of all sizes. His large train, tracks and scenery took six years to acquire and set up.

The air has turned chilly and daylight is fading as Arnold Kistner rushes across his yard. Wearing a blue hooded jacket and gloves, the gray-haired 43-year-old throws open a shed door to reveal his proudest accomplishment — a large green model train hooked to a solitary flatbed car.

“Today will be the last time the train will run this year,” he declares while unloading a pink wire mesh flamingo and five ceramic buildings from the flatbed. He hurriedly sets up the buildings on a platform for another model train in his front yard.

“Each thing has its particular spot,” he explains.

After setting up a smaller model train next to the ceramic buildings, he walks to a railroad switch stand and unlocks it. He swings a lever and a green light begins to glow.

Arnold returns to the large model train and lifts the top to reveal a gas-powered engine. He pulls the cord on the engine, and it hums to life. Arnold climbs onto the flatbed and backs it into the yard.

Arnold Kistner watches one of his G-scale model trains chug around his backyard. The train is one of 11 that he owns. Since the age of 3, when he received his first model train for Christmas, Arnold has been fascinated with trains.

For the next 15 minutes, the man smiles with joy while riding around the yard. Finally, he finishes his last lap and puts up the train for the last time this year.

At his mobile home near Jackson, the bespectacled Hobby Lobby stockman builds and collects model trains. In all, he owns 11 trains, ranging from a tiny model locomotive that fits on a record player to the gas-powered engine that circles his front yard.

Arnold’s trains are everywhere. In the lawn next to his home, a 250-foot oval track circles a giant squirrel, a miniature windmill and a model of Gravel Hill United Methodist Church, which Arnold and his mother attend every Sunday. Three more tracks are scattered throughout the grass and gravel.

Inside, two of the home’s rooms are filled with trains. In one addition, built specifically for Arnold’s hobby, three different trains weave past each other through tunnels, cities and a carnival on an elaborate, three-level track.

Arnold calls his creation Four Seasons Railroad. “I named it Four Seasons because spring, summer and fall are outdoors, and the winter is indoors,” he explains.

Arnold works on a model train in a tiny room, overflowing with train layouts.

Arnold’s largest train stands 2 feet tall and 8 feet long. Its powerful engine can pull up to 10 people. It took him six years, 10 tons of gravel and numerous trips to St. Louis for parts to complete the train and track.

So far, he’s spent around $10,000 for the land, trains and scenery on the outside and $5,000 for the inside trains. For Arnold, model railroads are serious business.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re just playing with toys,’” he says. “No, not really. If you really get into railroading, you learn about history because you’re trying to recreate that time period. You also learn about electronics, mathematics for dimensions, architecture for buildings and agriculture for rural scenes.

“You have to learn about all those things because it all goes into it.”

For example, on the three-level scene inside the house, several N-scale trains run past an old-fashioned county fair. Music playing from the Ferris wheel dates back to the 1950s. The same room also contains an authentic train board sign and red lantern. In fact, Arnold has collected so much railroad memorabilia that it fills the entire room.

Arnold opens the door to a small trailer that rests on the edge of his property. Inside, a heap of old radios and other electronics await repair. Arnold learned his electronic repair skills from his father.

“I was supposed to get half that room,” says his mother, Frieda, an 85-year-old German woman with light blue eyes and a thick, foreign accent. “But now there’s no room for me.”

Frieda says her brother, Walter Scholz, first introduced Arnold to model railroads.

“He’s the one who started this whole mess,” Arnold says.

When his family lived in Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s, Arnold would visit his uncle’s house and spend hours watching the trains in his basement. After pleading with his mother, Arnold received his first train, an American Flyer, on his third Christmas.

“Really, though, I officially got into trains in 1976 when I set up a display at the Spirit of ’76 Convention in Chicago. Before then, I just played with it,” he says.

In 1979, the family moved to Missouri where Arnold worked at Jet TV in Gordonville. For a while, Arnold rode the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway to work from Jackson to Gordonville. He often volunteered as the brakeman on the excursion train and once even fired the engine. He never wanted to be a conductor, however, because of the inconvenient hours and considerable amount of responsibility.

Arnold examines one of his many model trains. This Old Heidelberg Beer boxcar was originally from Germany and purchased in St. Louis.

For four years, Arnold operated his own radio repair shops in Fruitland and Gordonville. His father, who worked on electronics in Chicago during the 1940s, taught Arnold about radio repair, as well as electric and mechanical devices.

Today, the Citizens’ Electric Corporation member still applies this knowledge by repairing old radios and model trains for friends and neighbors. These radios and other electronic devices fill a small trailer, with a sign on it reading “1-Star Radio Shop,” that sits on the edge of his property. Inside his living room, a 1969 Loewe Opta radio that he fixed still plays AM, FM and shortwave stations.

Naturally, Arnold’s knowledge of electronics is beneficial for working with model railroads. He wires his layouts and repairs broken engines that he finds at flea markets, garage sales and train shows. Usually, he knows what’s wrong with a train before a seller even tells him.

During the five to seven hours per week that he spends with his trains, he’s always looking for ways to improve the landscape. Arnold’s creations are constantly expanding and evolving, like a real community.

“One thing about a railroad, if it’s a true railroad, it’s never finished,” he says. “There’s always a challenge. Either you’re repairing a broken engine or adding to the scenery or changing burnt-out lights or watching it run and thinking about ways to change it. There’s always something to be done.”

Arnold starts a 1973 Jenson steam engine that he repaired several years ago without any instructions.

Arnold is currently saving for another car and caboose for his large outside train so more people can ride.

Unfortunately, he rarely gets visitors except for the occasional curious neighborhood kid. But he hopes that will change soon. On Dec. 10 and 11, Arnold plans to display five of his trains at Auburn Creek Assisted Living in Cape Girardeau. “By sharing the joy, you double it,” he says.

Although Arnold has packed up his outside trains for the last time this year, he continues to tinker and dream.

“The great thing about model railroads is there are no limitations or boundaries,” he says. “Really, anything is possible.”

For more information, call Arnold Kistner at (573) 243-0120.

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