At the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, you see model trains chugging charmingly through the trees, mountains, and cityscapes, and clacking across bridges as they merrily toot their horns.
You don’t see the workshop crammed with test tracks, a lathe, a drill press, soldering irons, a drawer filled with spare train motors, dozens of bins of spare parts, and rows of small jars of paint labeled “CNW yellow” and “Wisconsin Central maroon.”
But that’s what keeps the trains rolling at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
A room in the basement of the Regenstein Center is the hive of repair activity for the Model Railroad Garden, which operates through October 29. There are also ghost trains for Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns (October 26 to 29), and trains that wend through Wonderland Express, which begins November 24. That is why there is a staff of three year-round engineers and 18 seasonal engineers, helped by 66 volunteers, that keep the repair shop busy year-round.
The work is crucial. The Model Railroad Garden has 350 model railroad cars and 125 engines, and during the season they run on a punishing schedule: eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week.
“The trains are not designed to operate the way we operate them; companies will not design them that way,” said chief engineer Dave Rodelius. “So we just continually use up the trains, and when they’re used up, we discard them. We get two of everything. When one breaks down, we replace it with the other.”
The engineers replace motors, wheels, and track—400 feet of track a year. They repair motors. They wire the electronics that make the trains run, testing the trains on the workshop tracks before putting them into service; incorrect wiring causes the fuses to blow. They install circuit boards with electronic sound cards that make horn or bell sounds when the train travels over magnets.
“The Amtrak train hasn’t been made since 2004; we couldn’t get wheels anymore,” said operating engineer John Ciszek. “So we re-engineered the truck assembly (which holds the wheels) with a bolster plate.” Now they can replace the wheels with ones still being made.
And when they need a part that doesn’t exist, they have it custom engineered.
The behind-the-scenes work continues outside. Discreetly tucked away in the Model Railroad Garden is a shed that stores cars and engines overnight, and another that houses banks of remote controllers that operate the engines and their charging stations. A board fitted with small colored lights shows the direction each railroad line is operating—green for clockwise, red for counterclockwise.
The constant work is a labor of love. Rodelius, Ciszek, and maintenance technician Dave Perez have been model railroad enthusiasts themselves since they were children.
“Most of the engineers have their own layouts in their basements,” Rodelius said. “It’s the perfect job for most of the people here. They love it. You can’t keep them out of here.”
Once there was a boy who loved model trains. When the boy grew up, he became the chief engineer of train exhibitions at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and he still plays with trains. “I hardly get to play with my railroad at home because I get to play with this one,” said Dave Rodelius, in the tone of a man who can’t believe his good fortune.
This year marks Rodelius’s 15th season at the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, which opens Saturday, May 9, with a special treat. This season, the Model Railroad Garden will pay tribute to steam engines, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Horticultural Society (the Society founded and manages the Chicago Botanic Garden). Models of historic steam engines will chug along 1,600 feet of track, representing the early days of the Society, when steam engines ran commuter coaches along Chicago’s elevated tracks and hauled freight over long distances.
Q. Dave, you have the greatest job title ever! How did you get this job?
A. I was retired, and my wife saw a little blurb in the newspaper that the Chicago Botanic Garden needed tram drivers. So I became a tram driver. One day, I saw that they had torn things up right in the middle of the Garden. I said, “What the Sam Hill are they doing here?” That’s how I found out there was going to be a model railroad out there. Then one of the secretaries, who worked for a vice president, found out that I had been into model railroads all my life. So one day, the vice president of visitor operations at the time called me into her office and asked if I would be interested in managing the railroad. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how much I’d have to pay.
Q. But that was back in 2000—and the railroad exhibition was going to be a five-month exhibition.
A. We had more than 100,000 people come through in five months. The little path out there was constantly packed with people. One thing led to another. In our first year, the trains didn’t make any sounds—no choo-choos or whistles or anything, so we added sound cars. Gradually, the railroad became so darn popular that it became a permanent exhibition.
Q. So you became interested in trains as a kid?
A. When I was 6 or 7, my dad bought me a Lionel train. That train would go around the Christmas tree and in the bedroom. Now I have a model railroad layout of Solothurn, Switzerland, where my daughter got married; it’s in my basement. It has Swiss trains and a ski lift.
Q. It sounds like you were a busy kid.
A. My family had 2.5 acres that we farmed in World War II for vegetables. I sold vegetables in the neighborhood in my little wagon. Then I was in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout in 1948….I grew up in Evanston and still live in Evanston, and I have lunch with some sixth-grade classmates once a month.
Q. And you’ve had some other interesting jobs before you started running the railroad.
A. I received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. I wanted to raise cattle. In college, I was an intern at a purebred cattle farm. The most fascinating thing I did was to help birth calves. You get to see the little rascals trying to get up and stumble around….Eventually, I was drafted into the U.S. Army engineer corps. Two years later, I was discharged and became a manager at a livestock feed manufacturing company. Then my dad bought a photography studio in 1961, and I became a photographer.
Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?
A. My passion for the railroad is what drives me—I absolutely love this railroad. The same passion goes for everyone. We have 18 engineers and 75 to 80 volunteers. They get along so darn well that I can’t believe it. You cannot keep these people away; they are just so dedicated. They whole thing has kept me young. I get up and down on my hands and knees all the time. I should write to the AARP—if you want to hear about a good job to have, we at the Garden have it.
Q. What do you do in your spare time?
A. I do some gardening, and some fishing and boating. My wife and I have three daughters and three grandkids. My wife is spectacular, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.
Long-ago legend says that cranes can live for 1,000 years…and that folding 1,000 paper cranes, one for each year, can make a wish come true.
So it is that the crane is the symbol of longevity and good fortune.
22 Folds From the first corner-to-corner fold to the last crook of beak and tail, it takes 22 folds to make this style of origami crane. Because pictures are worth 1,000 words, we offer this visual guide to crane-making.
Fast forward to the turn of the twenty-first century, when Ray Wilke, a devoted volunteer in the Elizabeth Malott Japanese Garden, decided to make origami cranes as a take-away gift for children who visited the garden’s Shoin House. Each winter, Ray and wife Ginny folded cranes…and each spring/summer Ray handed them out, one by one, to the curious children.
Over the years, Ray and Ginny made 40,000 cranes.
When Ray “retired” from volunteering, fellow-volunteer Edie Rowell decided to keep the hand-to-hand tradition alive. She taught Interpretive Programs manager Mary Plunkett how to fold. Mary found more volunteers to train other volunteers, and set out stacks of paper for them to take at will.
Now there are 10 people who fold, bringing in bags of 20, 60, or 100 origami cranes throughout the winter.
And 3,000-plus cranes are ready to hand out for the 2015 season.
This just in from California…
Just 24 hours after our interview, Mary Plunkett called to say that a box had just arrived in the mail from volunteer Meline Pickus. She’d sent 50 cranes from California, where she was staying for the winter. In her spare time, she folded cranes…and she wanted them to arrive in Chicago before the Shoin House opened. Our volunteers are awesome.
From Ray’s original intent comes great good fortune: a community has sprung. “It goes beyond the normal notion of volunteering,” Mary explains. “You get into a Zen state when folding…it’s very relaxing…and you’re contributing to something that’s bigger than you. It’s social, too—a group of three or four might have dinner together, then fold cranes together.”
And what do the kids think when they’re offered a crane? “They’re over the moon, they’re very gentle with them,” Mary says. “We say, ‘We’d like you to have one,’ and you’d think you were giving them gold when you explain why. It opens the door for conversations, especially with 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds.”
Cranes are offered, hand to hand, at the Shoin House whenever volunteers are present…for as long as the handmade supply lasts. (Although adults make wishes, too, cranes are for kids only.)
Volunteer season at the Shoin House begins May 13. Bring the kids—and tell them to think about their wish!
There are in the neighborhood of 1,400 volunteers working, helping, contributing, and giving their time and energies to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This fact about the Garden amazes me every time I hear it.
Isn’t that astounding?
I began at the Garden as a volunteer, too, so this Thanksgiving, I wanted to talk to a few others to find out when, where, how, and why they volunteer.
Suffice to say that I met some awesome people. It’s a pleasure to tell their stories—and to honor them in this season of giving thanks.
Volunteers Can Connect
Five years ago, Jack Kreitinger bought his first ticket to Wonderland Express—and promptly fell in love with the show. An architect by trade, “I wanted to build those little houses out of bark,” he laughs. Instead, he attended that year’s Volunteer Fair and signed up to become a guide for the walking tour program. (Mark your calendar: our next Volunteer Fair is Sunday and Monday, March 1 and 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Regenstein Center.)
Jack’s Favorite Getaway
For Jack, volunteering is about making connections with other people. “Gardeners are the coolest people on earth,” he says. “I’ve met such interesting people from all over the world and, as a tour guide, I can convey how much I love the Garden and why they should love it, too.” Jack’s natural communication and leadership skills have transformed the Walking Tour Guides team as well: he’s a volunteer team leader.
A committed time slot works well for Jack: Thursday mornings find him leading a 45-minute tour from the Crescent Garden through the Heritage Garden, Bonsai Collection, Circle Garden, Buehler Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, and Krasberg Rose Garden; a second tour lasts a little longer since it’s open-ended.
“It grounds me in nature,” Jack explains, “since I get to see the changes in the gardens week by week, spring through fall.” Between his regular schedule, VIP tours, and special events (he takes special request tours!), Jack estimates that he’s hosted 1,500 people on tour in his five years as a volunteer.
“I get more out of it than I give,” he says. We respectfully and thankfully disagree.
Volunteers Can Specialize
Eight years ago, Ann Stevens took her first course in beekeeping. Seven years ago, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden purchased eight new beehives and needed a beekeeper. It was a perfect match.
Ann’s Favorite View
Six years of volunteer beekeeping later, Ann does the math:
50,000 bees at the end of each summer
x eight beehives
x six years
= 2,400,000 bees
That’s a lot of beekeeping. And Ann’s work is a great example of the specialized roles of some volunteers at the Garden.
“I love the freedom of it,” Ann says. “It’s a job I can go to when the weather’s right for the bees. I love the seasonality of it: starting new hives, getting them settled, working through the seasons.”
Ann speaks eloquently about working with bees. “I learn new things from them every year. Even if hives are side by side, the results in each are different. You have to adjust, nurture, and give them your best, but you can’t control it all. There are things that are bigger than us, and I get to experience that through the bees.”
Like every volunteer that I had the pleasure of interviewing, Ann also spoke glowingly about the visitors she interacts with at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “It’s so beautiful to see so many different people: different ages, different languages being spoken, young couples, families teaching kids to be respectful of the garden. There’s an international feeling at the Garden, and I get to be part of that. I’m so grateful.”
We’re grateful, too, Ann.
Volunteers Can Contribute
First things first: Eileen Sirkin already had a Ph.D. in microbiology and a long-time family membership at the Garden before she became a volunteer.
Eileen’s Favorite Place
Ten years ago, she was ready to volunteer and to return to the field of science. Initially, she volunteered as a Plants of Concern citizen scientist (check it out here). When Dr. Jeremie Fant arrived at the Garden as a conservation scientist, she became a volunteer technician in the Molecular Ecology Lab—and has been there ever since.
“It’s like CSI for plants,” Eileen explains when asked about her lab work. Her assignments are wildly interesting (like most science!): her early work with Dr. Fant involved the selection of seagrass species to repopulate a section of Chicago’s Rainbow Beach; her current project involves the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and examines the DNA of Iris vartanii, a rare native that grows only in Israel.
Coworkers and volunteers are important to Eileen. “These are down-to-earth types of people, who love the natural world,” Eileen says. “There’s a lot of fellowship here.”
Also important is the sense of giving back and contributing to a larger cause. “The Garden saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to reactivate what was dormant—I’m grateful for the chance to return to science,” Eileen says at the end of our conversation. “I can’t leave this place. I love it.”
We’re so grateful for your contribution, Eileen.
Volunteers Can Influence
Carmen’s Favorite Spot
After 40 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—teaching Spanish to kids little and big—Carmen Reyes had earned her retirement.
But after just six months, she missed the kids. And she missed teaching. So she turned to the Garden—a place that she already knew well from many summer visits—and she signed up as a greeter. When Judy Cashen, the ever-alert director, volunteer administration and engagement, asked her to help out in the education area, she jumped at the chance.
As an assistant for the school field trip programs, Carmen sets up for the classes that arrive, assists the team leaders, and does some presentations herself (her engaging approach to the subject of companion plants is always popular).
Carmen especially likes working with kids grades K through 8. “They’re wide-eyed, and they want more information,” she says. “Any bit of information that you offer is new to them.” Her bilingual skills are constantly in demand, and she often finds herself welcoming kids on field trips from her former employer, the Chicago Public Schools.
The Garden itself is a powerful draw. “You can’t beat the setting,” Carmen remarks. “And regardless of the time of year, there’s always something beautiful to see, something good for the soul. I’m thankful for the people who make it so beautiful and welcoming. It makes me feel like part of the family at the Garden.”
Thank you for investing in the next generation, Carmen.
Volunteers Have Fun
Carolyn’s Favorite Walk
Carolyn and Ed Hazan are the volunteer’s volunteer: they give of their time separately and together. Between the two of them, they’ve worked in nearly every garden, and the list of events that they’ve volunteered for reads like the year’s schedule at the Garden: Wonderland Express, the Orchid Show, World Environment Day, Kite Festival, Chef Series, and the Antiques & Garden Fair…and more
In 2001, when Ed decided that he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, long-time volunteer Sam Darin suggested that he give volunteering a try. Both Ed and Carolyn began by volunteering two times per month—today they’re up to three or four days per week.
“It’s the people,” Carolyn says without hesitation when asked what drives them to volunteer. “We love it because we know everybody, and there’s always somebody new to talk to—you can never have too many friends!”
The photo of the couple says it all: they’re vibrant, intrepid, can-do people who have found their tribe at the Garden. And, yes, they’re washing the birch trees (every five years or so, the trees get a brightening scrub).
Thank you both for giving so much.
Three Cheers for Your Fellow Volunteers
Read about five award-winning volunteers in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing magazine (page 18). Ready to join us as a volunteer and make your mark at the Garden? Volunteering starts here.
Out at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, there’s a whole group of volunteers with really interesting career histories and double-digit years of volunteer service. Larry Aronson is one of them.
You’re likely to find Larry on Thursdays at his favorite volunteer station: the Pepper Discovery Cart. There, he presides over 120 different pepper samples and flavorings. “When I started volunteering 11 years ago, there were four pepper samples and a book on the cart,” Larry says.
So he made it his mission to add to the cart. Dried peppers, ground peppers, pepper flakes and pepper sauces. Peppers from Brazil and Peru, France and Spain, China and Japan, Africa and South America. Well-known peppers like paprika (the seasoning made from dried and ground pimento peppers) and obscure peppers like Capsicum chacoense (an ancient species).
Ask Larry a question about peppers and he’ll not only have the answer, but he’ll also add a conversation-starting fact or story to go with it. What’s his favorite pepper to eat? It changes over time. The Brazilian malagueta pepper is a current favorite that is “better than Tabasco,” Larry says.
What’s the hottest pepper he’s got? Used to be “Ghost” (Buht jolokia), until he got a sample of Trinidad moruga “Scorpion.” Its heat level is said to be the same as pepper spray—essentially, inedible.
Which peppers does he use in recipes? Cayennes. Jalapeños. Habañeros. Why? “Because they have the most universal and interesting flavors,” Larry says. He should know—he eats peppers every single day.
Speaking of recipes, Larry recommends a favorite resource: Chile Pepper magazine. He owns every issue, and says it has the best recipes in the world.
A professional chef and baker on his non-volunteer days (he’s owned 27 restaurants in his six-plus decades of cooking, including Chicago’s My π Pizza), Larry likes to re-create recipes for great food that is new to him. (He’s in the process of writing a cookbook now.)
While talking recipes, Larry mentioned that he had a new favorite sandwich, using his favorite recipe for pickled red peppers. Naturally, we asked if he’d share.
Larry Aronson’s Pickled Red Peppers
1 ounce sugar
1 ounce salt
1 cup white vinegar
3 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon pickling spice, tied in cheesecloth
1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
1 medium onion, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
Fresh red pimento peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute other sweet red peppers, such as red bells)
Fresh red jalapeño peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute serranos)
In a saucepan, bring the first six ingredients above to a boil. Add the carrots to the boiling liquid. When carrots start to soften (test with a fork), remove from boiling liquid.
Pack carrots, chopped onions, and a mix of 50/50 chopped sweet and hot peppers into sterilized jars. (Follow manufacturer’s instructions for sterilizing jars and lids.) Pour hot pickling liquid over vegetables, filling to ¼-inch from the top of the jar. Seal with sterilized lid and screw top. Let sealed jars cool.
Larry stores his pickled peppers in the refrigerator for several months.
To make a great sandwich: On homemade white bread, spread mayo, then layer with sliced turkey and pickled red peppers.
Alternate serving: Cube fresh turkey and combine with mayo and pickled red peppers as turkey salad. Delicious served with chicken, too!