Please join me in my incredible journey through the model train industry for the past 67 years!
It’s not about me personally, but the experiences, and people I have met over the years, people like Irv Athearn who was a friend for over 20 years, and Nick Pfusterscmid whose name most of you may never have heard but helped shape the industry for many of those years.
If you wish you can participate by providing more info, or ask questions by sending an
email to: History@con-cor.com
I cannot promise everyone will get a personal response, but I will do the best I can to add your information to my data base for future installments.
This first installment will be longer than the rest, but I must sort out the early years as best I can.
I expect it will run to 7-8 installments one about every 4-6 weeks some details will be posted with footnotes to connected web links to web pages that will go into more details on specific topics You are free to download these at any time.
This First installment will consist of 3 Chapters as listed below:
Chapter#1: Early History and kid with money raising ambitions.
1st Project, Assembling Model Die Casting (Roundhouse) Metal kits.
Chapter#2: The Con-Cor Wood Craftsman kit line + Startup of Trains,Inc retail store
The influence of Junior Achievement in my early days
Chapter #3: Trains Inc. Brass Imports Line
I also ask you to post links and comments about this journey to your Social Web site links, so as many people as possible can be reached about this History of the Model Railroad Industry and sign up for future Installments. Then as many as possible canbe able to contribute facts or questions to my history.
Chapter 1: Family History and My Early Interest in Model Trains
I always had an interest in trains, my mom and dad were living in an apartment with my grandma after the war and as soon as they could they moved out her apartment to our own apartment that happened to be above an office of a lumber yard on Division Street in Chicago. Lumber yard had rail service, (About 1948-49) (I was about 7-8 years old) so I could watch the steam train literally in my back yard doing switching. We were only about 1000 ft east of the Cicero yard for the Indiana Harbor Belt Ry.
We moved into our first “house” around 1952 and my dad bought me for that first Christmas a Marx 3-rail train set.
I started to deliver weekly newspapers when I was about 14-15 (first “job”) called “Austin News” it was a neighborhood “freebie” everyone got one whether they paid for it or not. But the nominal charge was 25 cents a month. And if we collected any money, the Carriers split it 50/50 with the Newspaper… I was pretty good at keeping a record of which people paid and how delinquent they were, so I often collected payments for past months.
About 1957 or 1958 the paper ran a contest for the carriers that collected the most money on their route and the top “earners” would get a free trip to Washington DC. PLUS an American Flyer Train set, So I was one of the winners, and got a free 4–5-day trip to Washington DC via the B&O (4 of us “Carriers” and a chaperone from the Newspaper of course”)
I sort of lucked out on several points during the trip.
The Newspaper bought tickets on the B&O, and at that time was the only railroad east of Chicago that had dome cars
… we only had paid coach seats, but I went up top on the dome and sat for hours watching scenery and passing trains. (The conductor knew I only had coach seat ticket, but he never said anything… the Conductor and I chatted about trains for quite a while , maybe he was a model railroader?
When we got closer to the east coast, the conductor came through the train and announced there had been an accident ahead near Harper’s Ferry Va. and we would be delayed.
After a while the train started again, and I guess we were diverted to freight only trackage to bypass the accident and lots of people came out of their houses to wave at the train, and of course people on the train waved back…
A lot maybe have never seen a pass train, who knows, it was very rural back country.
My first introduction to “Scale” and “Gauge”!
The 2nd part of the win was the American Flyer Train Set. After the return from the train trip, my dad and I collected the train set and I was disappointed that the “Marx” set I had was three rail and American Flyer set 2-rail, and size did not match either ! While at first I was disappointed, but I grew to really like the American Flyer Passenger set I had won.
I started to build an HO layout in our basement that was about 10 x 20 ft in 1959
The layout theme was the Iron Ore Mines in Minnesota. I named it “Iron Valley” And had photos of the mines that my Dad and I took while on a fishing vacation in Minnesota the previous year. (My Dad was an avid Muskie fisherman and participated in many Muskie Tournaments over the years.)
I do not recall ever taking any photos of the layout. (I regret that now.)
One of my buys for the layout was a couple of the Model Die Casting metal ore cars and a boxcar kit… which I soon found out were a pain to assemble as the sides were painted and decorated, but the rest of the car was raw diecast which you had to soak in a MDC brand cleaner, trim all the flash and then assemble.
I don’t know how it came about, but I had the idea that other people were having the same experience, so I wrote to Model Die Casting and asked if I could buy as a dealer and pre-assemble their car kits for sale. I got an affirmative reply after a couple of weeks and had a little money from the newspaper route so I used that money to buy the first batch of MDC Kits.
It did not make my mom happy as I used here laundry tubs in the basement to soak the diecast kit pieces for cleaning and the cleaning powder smelled funny.
Once the parts had been soaked and cleaned of “flash” Which was a very time consuming task (You will see some of the flash on a typical kit in the photos.) I then painted them in the back yard on non-windy days.
Over time I think I assembled and painted a couple of hundred MDC cars.
While I was doing the MDC metal kit assembly, and visiting the hobby shops for a while (The closest one to my house was only about a mile away from my house and the owner was buying some of the assembled MDC kits from me for re-sale by then), I was interested in getting some Main Line Models wood assembly kits… but they were hard to get and always out of stock at the Hobby shop, I had the bright idea that I could build a better mouse trap, so I designed and came you with our own Con-Cor wood kits which I introduced in 1962, first kits where HO USRA wood boxcars, HO Airslides and a HOn3 gondola model..
Note#1: I found out year’s later that the reason for Main Line Models shortages, was partly since Main Line was only the owner and 2 other workers.
Note#2: Remember the Ambroid 1 of 5,000 kits? Found out later only one or 2 of that series sold more than 1,500 kits, most sold around a 1,000 .. but the sales pitch of 1 in 5,000 was good marketing, (as being hopeful).
Note#3: I worked closely with one of the GATX Publicity Dept (at that time it was in downtown Chicago, Fellow was named Leroy Kramer on Designing the Airslide Model. (At that time mosst roadroads, and car builders had public relations departments.)
Mr Kramer met me one day at the East Chicago Indiana GATX factory where the Airslides were built and introduced me to the GATX company photographer (Who took photos of every car in its finished paint job as it rolled out of the factory. (I guess for insurance purposes) and he told the fellow to give me copies of anything I wanted. The guy had hundreds of photos, and I picked out 25-30 and he said he would find the negatives and mail me the prints (Which I got about two weeks later.) I still have all those original photos in a file here.
I also liked the “GATX” logo being used then (Diamond in Circle), and incorporated it into the “Red Kit Box Design.
Green Box in picture was the original Con-Cor kit boxes, couple years later I changed to the Red box with a similar design to what GATX logo was at that time.
Chapter #2: The Con-Cor wood kit line (Circa 1962)
I explained my first venture with the MDC metal kit assembly, about 1960 I decided while sales were OK, the time and trouble to assemble the metal kits was not worth the small profit involved, and in visiting the various hobby shops found that the wooden kits made by Main Line Models were hard to find (And dealers said they were very popular and hard to get.
So, I set my sights on making a line of wood/metal assembly kits that competed with that brand.
By 1962 I had introduced about 4-5 basic kits, which included models patterned after USRA designs (a Boxcar, refrigerated car) plus the HO Airslide Covered Hopper, An HOn3 Gondola, and Tri-Level Auto Rack car. (Maybe some of you collectors, can add to this list).
My father, Millward Conway (Who worked full time for Commonwealth Edison Co. (Chicagoland area power company), and my Uncle Russell Conway (Who was a City of Chicago Police Officer) were my partners in this project. Uncle Russ was a pretty good inventor, and while we at first were silk screening the sides for the cars (buying pre-grooved side material from Northeastern Models, Uncle Russ invented a machine that used solid NE wood sheets, and added the grooving AFTER they were silk screened, and approved the quality of the overall car kit sides by 500%. (One customer wrote us and said we had changed from a “Crosley” to a Cadillac” )
Uncle Russ also build a miniature table saw to cut the NE stripwood much easier and more efficiently.
I can remember me, my dad, and mom sitting at night watching Johnny Carson on TV while we sat there with table trays in front of us loading the hardware packages for the various kits.
Marketing the Wood Kits:
By this time, I was a familiar face to Lynn Westcott, (Editor at that time for Model Railroader Magazine). Every time we came out with a new kit, a friend of mine (Harry Hageman) used to drive to Milwaukee (about a 2 hour drive and visit with Lynn .. if we got there by about 11:00 am he always took us to lunch at Mader’s Restaurant a very popular Milwaukee German Cuisine Restaurant, he must have gone there often, as all the waiters knew him by name).
Harry was a member of a local Chicago model railroad club I had joined and would wind up working for me for about 35 years. I remember at the time he was driving a 1947 Studebaker with the turret windows, a unusual car. I found out much later the car had been designed by Raymond Lowey, the same designer that had designed all the Pennsylvania Railroad stuff in the late 1930’s. I don’t think Harry ever knew that.
About early 1962 Harry volunteered to take a driving trip with a car full of our Con-Cor kits back to the East Coast stopping at Hobby Shops in major towns and cities showing and selling our Con-Cor kits. He did and it was a very successful trip with him selling hundreds of kits for us. (With a commission to Harry of course!) The list of train hobby stores was supplied by Lynn Westcott from the list of Train hobby shops advertising in Model Railroader.
(Harry was a self-employed house painter by trade, so he could take the time off during the hot / sticky Chicago Summer)
When Harry got back from the trip, he was excited about the Train stores he had visited and thought opening an exclusive model train store in Chicago would be a good idea. So, Harry and I rounded up 4 other members of the Train club we belonged to to join in as partners. So, the members were me, Harry, John Novak, Doc Severson (who was an HOn3 modeler, and two others whose names escape me for now. (that Train Club was in the basement of a set of retail stores on west Madison Street, just a block or so east of Austin Blvd. The dividing line between Chicago and the suburb of Oak Park, but the club’s name escapes me. Maybe someone out there reading this can supply the name?
Founding of Train,Inc hobby shop
In the Fall of 1962, we opened a store on Diversey Ave on Chicago’s far west side named “Train’s Inc.”
The store was a great success because we specialized in finding “hard to fine” items for Customers. We were open only 2 evenings a week, I think it was Wed evening, Friday evening and 10-4 on Saturday. All of the partners took turns working the open hours.
At the time there were 3 major wholesalers of Model Trains in Chicago, United Models was largest one, then Calman Dist. and finally Trost Distributors on the south side of Chicago,
As it turned out, the word got around pretty fast we could come up with “hard to find” items no one else could find, and people would come to the store, or call asking us to find “xyz” that other dealers could not find for me, we have maybe near 50% rate in finding stuff for people.
(Our secret was Trost Hobby Dist. They were a small distributor, and we found a high percentage of the items people were looking for just sitting on their shelves. They opened at 7:30 on Saturday mornings, so one of us would go to Trost every Saturday morning, pick up what we needed, and back to Train’s Inc before we opened at 10 am and pleased an awful lot of our customers with the items we found for them.) Trost was happy to sell the stuff after they dusted off many of the items from sitting on their shelf for years.) Just simple customer service, many stores just did not want to bother with at that time.)Many of our original partners dropped out over time for one reason or another (I found out “Partnerships” is not the way to go… So, by 1966 or so, only Harry and I were the remaining partners.
As I had a thirst for knowledge on running a business. Somehow, I managed to find time in my senior year of high school to Join Junior Achievement.
The Junior Achievement “Company” I joined was sponsored by Dr Scholls (the foot people), we met twice a week in the evening, one day for Managers of Dr School to give explanations on how business worked and how to find a product to make and “goals” we should set for the product we selected. The 2nd night was where we made the product to sell to the public.
Our group of about 10 teenagers decided on making a small “step stool”. (For kitchens etc.) To produce the stools, Dr Scholl allowed us to use their wood-working shop (Where they made prototype samples etc. of new products, or jigs and other fixtures for their factory on Chicago Ave. (the Dr Scholls factory was about 1/2 drive from my house and by then I had a driver’s License and used by Dad’s car to go to the meetings. (He bought his first family car in 1957 (A Ford Fairlane).
Every “JA” member was also a Salesman so the stools were sold to family, relatives and friends by most of our members. I sold them door to door to my Newspaper customers when I was out collecting their monthly “Austin News” customers payments.
In 2023 Junior achievement is still alive and well, but no one makes any products now. it is all Classroom type work.
Being a “Packrat”, I found one of those stools in a box in the warehouse, and a photo of it is shown here..
I graduated High School in 1960 and went to the University of Detroit for an engineering degree. I Chose the U of D, as it offered a 6 year program where the first two year’s where a normal Fall and Spring semester, but years 3-6 were a “Co-Op” program where you went to school for 13 weeks (at the Detroit Campus)
And then worked at a job as an intern (or whatever you want to call it) of your choice for 13 weeks, and we alternated quarters which meant I would be back home in Chicago for roughly half of the year, so that worked well for my “sideline business’s in model railroading.
My Dad was able to line up a job with a firm named Sargent & Lundy Engineering for my “Co-Op job. That firm did mostly large projects like Power Plants (Both coal fired and some of the early Nuclear Power Plants.
They are still in business today and show on their website they have built 952 power plants ovr the years.
Their offices were in in downtown Chicago, so I would be home every night and all weekend during those 13-week periods.
**An odd quirk I did not know until years later, is that Phil Walther’s also worked for Sargent and Lundy for his internship from University of Illinois, but not as the same time as I did.
After I got my degree from University of Detroit, I got a Scholarship at the University of Chicago Grad School starting in the fall of 1966.
I finished up my years at Univ of Detroit in spring of 1966… I don’t recall if I applied for a scholarship, or they came to me because of my grades at Detroit… anyway. I started at UofC in the Fall of 1966…with a full Tuition ride (My parents would not have been able to afford, but they would have if they could.)
The UofC campus was not close to my home.
I had to take a bus down Austin Blvd to the CTA Elevated trains that ran down the middle of the Eisenhower Expressway., a part of the CTA’s “L” system.
Once in Downtown Chicago I had to transfer back to a bus and about a 45-minute ride down to the UofC campus… total was about 1-1/2-hour ride (each way). Fortunately, my schedule was such that I only had classes 3 days a week.
That was without lab time, I think it was not till the 2nd Semester that I had a computer lab (They had one of the early “Fortran Computers” -It used a 80 column punch cards for data,, which was a slow and tetious process to create ) and they only had one machine which had to be shared by everyone so you had to schedule a Lab time way in advance, and if that was on one of the days I did not have classes I had to make the trip anyway back and forth.
I could grasp the utility of a computer in business, but of course never imagined how it has evolved into what it is today, I do not think anyone could have predicted. (I did buy a mainframe computer for the JMC wholesale business in 1975, for accounting and inventory control, it was one of the few brands other than IBM available at that time and was the Quantel Brand.
All NFL franchises has bought Quantel computers for Ticket reservations, I thought that was a good recommendation that the NFL was using them . So I bought one and had custom software made for it.
That same system we moved to Tucson in 1989 when we closed the JMC warehouse in Bensenville, and used it for almost another 10 years in here in Tucson.
After the first 2 semesters at U of C , I was burned out, and dropped out, with the plan to wait a year and re-enroll , but the Birth of “N” scale trains interfered with that plan, as you will see in Installment #2 of this History which will be ready about Oct. 1st.
But I did have great experiences while in the University of Chicago Grad School.
What do remember most at the UofC, was the professors I met…
Milton Friedman was my faculty advisor and easy to approach, he also taught my Finance Courses.
You could pretty much make an appointment with him any time he was not in class. He is the guy who came up the “Velocity of Money” theory which he later wrote books about, and I clearly understood his theory, and it still applies today. (Mr. Friedman won a Nobel prize in Economics for his idea in 1976.)
We had several meetings, but I don’t recall if I ever told him about the train business ventures.
Another Professor there at the time was Paul Volcker who went on to be the Chairman of the Fed from 1979 to 1987 He was head of the dept, but a very impersonal guy, his secretary had “her own” secretary to make student appointments and it was almost impossible to get a meeting with him, I had no urgent reason to do so, and I didn’t.
Chapter #3) The history of Trains, Inc. Brass models:
Just a Reminder, in 1962 there was no Internet, no emails, no computers, no fax machines, just the old “snail-mail” and “telephones” for communication between companies so things moved a lot slower than today.
(I can vividly remember sitting in my college dorm room, typing letters on “thin onion skin paper” and using carbon copy paper make my backup copy on an old Remington typewriter.
(Then mailing it off to lets say Japan, and waiting patiently for two weeks or so for the reply.)
I needed some tiny Metric Screws, both for kits and no one else was selling metric screws as an Accessory item and I thought they would be a good product to add to our “Slim Gems” line of accessories which were custom parts made for my kits by Cal-Scale.
I saw an ad for “Ken Kidder Models” in Model Railroader and wrote him a letter asking if he could sell me some Metric Screws in bulk.
Took a while for a reply, but when I got it, he apologized that he did carry metric screws, but I should contact his supplier in Japan to see what might be available. He supplied the name and address for a company called “Kumata & Company” in Tokyo Japan.
I had heard of brands such as “PFM” whose main supplier was “Tenshodo, and other brands such as “Toby” Models, but had never heard of “Kumata”,
So I wrote Mr. Kumata, and waited for a couple of weeks for a reply.
When I got the reply, it contained a price list for bulk metric screws, as well as an offer from Mr. Kumata offering to build brass models for me if I was interested and he volunteered the information he made many models for Mr. Ken Kidder so I could check them for quality.
I was surprised by the unexpected offer, but quickly wrote back, yes, I would be interested, but what information would he need and what would be required as the minimum quantity, payment terms, and proposed timetable start to finish.
After another couple of weeks, I got a reply, and he said 500 pieces was his minimum.
So, I decided I would follow the “PFM” system of announcing a model and asking for no deposit reservation system and asking dealers for reservations. The first item I chose was a Caboose, since it was a non-complicated, non-motorized item which design often was unique to a specific railroad.
I got flooded with orders.
“Trains, Inc” brass imports was off and running.
Interesting funny Story,
After some of the caboose orders started to be delivered to us, I decided to try to have Kumata do an “HO Cow and Calf” model, I originally ordered 500 sets, but the orders kept flooding in, and so I sent Kumata another letter, asking him to increase my order to 1,000 of each.
When I got his reply about two weeks later, I had to read his letter a couple of times… it said basically–
“Thank you Mr. Conway for the increase in your order, but I will have to increase the price quoted to you previously for the 500 pc because my workers will get bored making so many of the same model, and I will have to pay them a bonus to make 1,000 of each !!
YES, THIS IS A TRUE STORY! I went ahead and ordered the 1,000 of each anyway.
The rest of the Train’s Inc Story is pretty much history.
So now I had 2 full time Jobs…and 3 Part time jobs.
1) Full time Student (University of Chicago Business Graduate School)
2) Full time job at Sargent & Lundy engineering (26 weeks a year)
3) Part time HO Hobby kit producer
4) Part time “Trains,Inc” Retail store
5) Part time “Trains,Inc” Brass importer
I sold my interest in both the Train’s Inc Store, and Train’s Inc brass models about 1968 to Harry Hageman as I was already moving into the “N” market, which offered greater sales potential possibilities, and I was really stretched to thin.
Thank you for reviewing my 1st Installment of my History in the Model Train Industry…
2nd Installment should follow about Oct 1st, 2023, and take up my beginning as an “N” Scale model importer/Manufacturer.