Collecting Memories

Lisa C. Norton, Communications & Development Manager

July 12, 2021

Tom Hess’s infatuation with trains began seven decades ago. As a child, he lived in Dearborn on a street that deadended at the railroad tracks.

“When I was a little kid, I liked to watch the trains go by and I would walk down the tracks,” he said. Seven-year-old Tom just had to have an American Flyer set.

“We ran it around the Christmas tree,” he recalled. When his uncle gave him a hand-me-down set that belonged to his cousin, Tom set up a small layout in a corner of his parents’ basement – a humble precursor to what would become his true masterpiece.

He was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., during the Vietnam War and happened upon a store closing out its inventory of trains. He was looking at a set he had always admired as a child when the shop owner noticed him. “You really like that,” he said. “Make me an offer for it.”

Tom hesitated knowing it was an expensive set. But seeing Tom in his green beret uniform, the shop owner told him, “For you – I’ll give it to you for $20.” Tom bought the set and took it back to Fort Bragg with him. Then one of the other lieutenants gave him two more sets he had in his parents’ basement.

“Phil, Phil,” Tom told him, “I don’t need anymore. What am I going to do with all these trains?”

With six sets in his possession, Tom decided he would start collecting trains. Over the next 25 years, his collection grew to 150 sets – one of each American Flyer that was made.

In 1996, he designed a beautiful house to feature his collection, including walls of display shelves and a 40-foot long layout – a miniature city all painstakingly and devotedly crafted by Tom himself. He made buildings and trees, painted murals, and designed a custom bench system for the layout. From age 7 to 77, he amassed one of the largest collections of American Flyer trains. He even organized the Southeast Michigan S. Gaugers, a club for American Flyer collectors.

Tom’s childhood love of trains grew into a lifelong passion. But when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he made the difficult choice to have his collection auctioned off.

“It breaks my heart to have to tear it down,” he said, but it was important to him not to leave his wife with the burden of dismantling it. Tom was also proud to know it would be featured online and in a national train collecting publication. “This way, when I’m gone, people will still talk about the layout,” he said.

His friends from the Southeast Michigan S. Gaugers helped dismantle the layout. But before they did, they created a beautiful album documenting Tom’s creation, showcased in the photos above.

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