Dave Peters: CTMQ Hero
Wallingford (Google Maps location undisclosed)
November 25, 2009
Why? Because the Peters Rail Road Museum is just plain awesome. It’s awesome for several different reasons… Some which you may think are unique to my thinking. I assure you that they are not. In fact, of all the museums I’ve dragged Hoang along to, this may be one of her favorites.
It all comes down to Dave and Barbara Peters. This retired couple represent everything I love about writing this blog. As people, they are welcoming, humble, funny, informative, quick-witted, adventuresome, talented, devoted, organized, friendly and absolutely a bit quirky. As museum owners, they are welcoming, humble, funny, informative, quick-witted, adventuresome, talented, devoted, organized, friendly and absolutely a bit quirky.
And let’s hope they are also patient, since it has taken me over a year to put together this fawning blog about my visit. (Although, in the interim, not only did I name the Peters Rail Road Museum my third favorite museum of my second hundred – I also used it as an example of greatness during my first appearance on a local NPR talk show. I do know that this second bit got back to Dave and his family and I received some nice sentiments from them as a result.)
Oh, and I hope they are understanding as well, since I took no notes during my visit and I can’t possibly hope to remember all the cool stuff I saw that day. I’m sure I will get some facts wrong… But even when I’m wrong, it’s close enough.
“The Peters Rail Road Museum located in Wallingford, CT is a not for profit Museum dedicated to the History and Collection of Rail Road Memorabilia. In addition, located at the Museum is an operating HO gauge Model Railroad. Modeled after the Coal town of Oak Creek, Colorado it has great amount of Detail and Animation in its rolling stock and buildings.
Your hosts Barbara and David Peters, are most happy to have Individuals and small Groups Tour through the Museum. Hours are by appointment only and there is no admission Fee ever Charged.”
The site provides a phone number and an email address and a bunch of railroading links. As a result, we were a bit mystified as to what this museum was really all about. Dave seemed happy to have us over for a visit, so we made plans to drive down there the day before Thanksgiving, followed by lunch in New Haven.
The Peters live in a well-manicured neighborhood in the Yalesville section of Wallingford. (Everytime I write “Wallingford” I hear Dave’s voice in my head intoning “WallingFOARD.”) From the street, the house looks perhaps too small to house a museum of any sort. I liken it to the Tardis of Dr. Who fame. You know, the old school telephone booth that once inside is the size of a palace? That’s how this place is. (In the links at the bottom, there are few videos of the museum from which you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.)
We knocked and were greeted by Barbara as though we have been life-long friends. Would we like some tea? Perhaps a krimpet? No, no, we’d just stopped by the wonderfully old school Neil’s Donut and Bake Shop and were all set on the food and drink front. How did we come to hear about the museum? Where are we from? What’s our interest in trains? Do we have a train set at home? Oh, you have a son? You should bring your son, what’s his name? I think Hoang was all set to just sit on the Peters’ couch and chat… But Dave had other plans.
Dave walks with the aid of a cane but his age has not dulled his sharp memory and wit one iota. We greeted each other and then followed him down into the basement. Now, I don’t know if it’s possible to give a proper description of Dave’s basement, a.k.a. The Peters Rail Road Museum. It’s simply incredible.
It is packed to the gills, BUT it is incredibly neat, clean and organized. I can’t imagine the hours spent down there simply organizing, cleaning and labeling. As I’ve often said on the pages of CTMQ, many of these singular labor of love type museums all bear the imprint of slight OCD. (As does, admittedly, CTMQ itself.) Again, the basement isn’t huge by any standard, but one could spend an entire day down there and still not see or absorb everything Dave has collected.
If I remember correctly, Dave worked for Amtrak and/or MetroNorth for years and years. I do know he was a machinist tasked with fixing and fabricating metal parts for trains. Over his years, stuff would break and be destined for the trash. Instead, Dave would bring it home and fix it up as good as new. No, not locomotives, but rather things like train crossing signals, train horns, old lanterns, switchboards, ticket takers and all the train “stuff’ that you can think of.
In addition, Dave collected each generation of train products like, for example, every Amtrak branded soap from the last 50 years that were available in the bathrooms on the trains. That may sound silly, but when all this “stuff” that has been collected is presented in an engaging and interesting way – it works. It totally works.
We started in the back of the museum over at Dave’s pride and joy: His train layout. This is the aforementioned “operating HO gauge Model Raiload which is modeled after the Coal town of Oak Creek, Colorado. While not the biggest layout we’ve ever seen, it is by far the coolest in many ways.
First of all, Dave mans the controls whilst sitting on an old bench from – ? From the WallingFOARD train station. He pointed out an inscribed PR on the bench which I think he said was done by Peter Rockefeller, but I forget. It’s not like Peter Rockefeller is so awesome and famous that that would even matter. Maybe it was Pete Rose. Or not.
Back to the train. The layout is simple enough; grass fields, a small city and a mountain. But when Dave begins breaking it all down, your head will spin. The level of detail is mind blowing. And that working engine pulling the train was machined by Dave himself. Yes, my man MADE a working model train engine! Oh, there’s more. He made most of the buildings in the layout himself and made the huge trestle latticework around the mountain.
The mountain? Oh, there’s a plane crashed into it which I’m sure is based on some real event and the pile of coal there at the mine entrance? Yeah, that’s actual bituminous coal from the actual Coal Creek, CO mine. Dave and Barbara went out there and gathered it themselves. Oh look, there are some hobos gathered around a “fire” on the mountain and the fire is smoking and what’s that Dave? You concocted some chemical formula yourself to create that smoke? This level of detail recurs all over the train layout – and all over the museum.
The layout’s controls are- get this – the actual control panel of an old New Haven line locomotive. And the chair next to the bench is an actual conductor’s chair.
Just looking at some of my pictures, you can see that every square inch of this place is awash in American train history. There’s a white pipe that winds around a couple walls inscribed with all the hobo language symbols (Dave provided translation as needed.) All sorts of official and sunsetted signs and plaques and signals hang all over. A multitude of train station clocks, train engine clocks, train car clocks, train employee clock-in clocks…
On the opposite side of the bench is a cleverly set dining car table. And you can certainly believe all the place settings, menus, ashtrays, armrests and fake flowers are all standard issue New Haven dining car.
I just emailed Hoang to ask if she remembered who the PR was and she replied, “Sorry, no idea. I was probably watching the hot air balloon at the time. “ Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention the hot air balloon contraption that Dave built above the train layout. Rad.
As I’m going through my pictures I’m having the same feelings I had back on that November day we visited. It’s exhilarating. With every slight turn of the head, we found ourselves immersed in some complete collection of some train related item – and Dave has stories for each and every one.
Take, for instance, the ticket counter. The entire desk from some train station complete with every type of ticket on offer. And all the those ticket punching things the conductors use when you ride the train. Oh, look over there! It’s every. Single. Official Amtrak issued hat. Or, right next to them, every single Amtrak watchman key or every single Amtrak track tool thing, on and on and on.
But it’s never boring. Because as soon as you’re done learning about how the rails are fixed when damaged (with actual pieces of damaged – and then fixed – rail), you can turn to the official Amtrak machinist tool kit. Doesn’t strike your fancy? Over there is a giant cabinet stuffed with every issue of Train (or whatever) magazine. Or the file full of train crash photos. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Here’s another picture for you. Old train worker lanterns and flashlights and lights… Just a few:
Did you notice that the ceiling is a display area for signs as well? And don’t be fooled into thinking Dave only collects Amtrak stuff. Oh no. You want hobo memorabilia? Dave’s got it – hobo this and hobo that, including an old Heublein cordial called Hobo’s Wife. Heublein, as you all know, (was) a Connecticut company that made all sorts of spirits, including a whole host of sickly sweet cheap wino wines like Brass Monkey and Hobo’s Wife.
Dave has tons of beer bottles and coasters and cans with trains on them. And lots and lots of pencils with trains on them. And a billion locks from trains and train yards and – I think you get the point.
But then again, not really. You see, even if you’re a train geek, it’s not really about the trains and train stuff here. It’s about Dave and Barbara and their passion for all things trains. They collected all this stuff out of love and decided to share it with whomever wants to spend time with them. It’s a beautiful ethic and the Peters’ are beautiful people. They and their museum represent everything I love about writing this blog and traveling to unknown corners of our state.
On our way back up to the kitchen, I noticed the walls of the stairwell are covered with an impressive collection of train stamps, train paintings, train drawings, train photographs, train everything. I can’t imagine there is any more room to slip in even a train lollipop if they tried. The Peters are the Herb and Dorothy Vogel of the train collecting world. (Which is an incredible compliment, if you know what I’m talking about.
I think we thought we were done with the museum; minds sufficiently blown. We were wrong.
With what I learned is typical Peters modesty, we were invited to mosey on down the hall to see some more of the collection. On the way to the library, we paused to check out a painting of the mountain of the train layout down below. I know there was something amazing about the painting, but I forget.
Into the library – whoa! There are 2,000 books all about trains – where we tried to absorb just how many train-related mugs and glasses and plates and other various ceramic type train things rung the room. Amazing.
Another room was labeled “the children’s room,” and I can’t even imagine the net worth of that collection alone. All sorts of train toys, train games and train clothes and bedspreads and whatnot. A 10 year old boy could spend a week in that tiny room alone.
I didn’t take a picture of it for some dumb reason, but one of the things Barbara was most proud of was the closet full of Amtrak (and other private companies, I’m sure) official uniforms. There must have been 50 different outfits and each was carefully mended by hand as needed. These uniforms are swapped out onto the mannequin down in the basement every few months or so.
The Peters CARE about their museum. I was very happy to hear that there is a firm succession plan in place for the museum – but sad to hear that it will be moving out of state when Dave can no longer keep it up. (To his son’s property in New Hampshire.) I’m not suggesting that will happen in the near-term (it’s now February 2011), but am comfortable saying the Peters Rail Road Museum won’t be in its current incarnation for 30 more years either.
I urge you, if you have a curious or adventurous bone in your body, to contact Dave and set up a tour. Put it this way – A few days later when talking about Christmas presents and such, Hoang said she’s like to build a train layout in the basement, inspired by the Peters Museum. We haven’t done it yet, but I sure would love to.
As long as we have a hobo campfire.
Hours: By appointment only
Food & Drink? Neil’s Donuts for a snack
Children? well-behaved kids only. Lots of stuff to knock over here.
You’ll like it if: You. Will. Like. It.
You won’t like it if: I could see claustrophobia as an issue
For the Curious:
The Peters Rail Road Museum
Video tour of the museum, from Dave himself!
Video of the Children’s Room with Dave
Tour with Dave continues to the Library
Non-Peters endorsed Video of the Peters layout
Part two of the video