Thirty Years

Today was our annual volunteer day at the Rail Festival, otherwise known as Day Out With Thomas at the Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB). It was an odd day: I only had one shift, and my wife got none; further, walking around the museum I saw fewer and fewer people that I knew. It wasn’t always that way, however….

Walking around the museum, I came to the realization that it had been 30 years since we had joined. 30 years since our first rail festival. In those thirty years we had gone from the youngsters to the old folks. And although I truly appreciate what our friends Thomas and Percy have brought us, I couldn’t help remember the days gone by, and what we had lost.

OERM 1987 RailfestBack in 1987 and into the 1990s and early 2000s, rail festivals were a very different beast. They were run completely by the members of the museum themselves; you would get a volunteer bid sheet and request your assignments — from Loader to Car Attendant to Car Barn Attendant to Street Guard (a very boring assignment). Over the years, you would get to know the members quite well. They would bring their kids as they got older, and they would grow into car attendants in their own right and regularly come to the museum. I remember Maurice and his kids Sondra and Jeff, and quite a few others. In this way, the museum became a family: you knew everyone and they knew you. If your kid ran off, even at a festival, they knew who to direct them back to.

We ran the tracks to capacity — you can see the schedule from 1987 on the right, including two pictures from back then (including DOT 12, which is now OERM 1956 (I think, could be OERM 1975), and my lovely wife after 2 years of marriage). We would trypically run a diesel on the main line, the Key System Unit (which hasn’t run in years) down to Barn 4, a steam engine pulled caboose train, and sometimes the big Red Cars (usually a blimp – such as 418-498) on the main line. We’d also run quite a few cars on the loop line, including the really old Kyoto car from Japan. Back in the early days, we only ran part of the way to downtown Perris — as far as we had electrified the track. I still remember the vines and gourds that grew out there. Later we finally got permission to run to the Perris Depot: we would have three trains alternating, and yet another train in Perris continuing to run North to Neuvo. The first year in Perris we were mobbed — I still remember Ray Ward and I figuring out how to put out the stanchions to control the crowd.

The museum itself was a lot of dirt roads — or perricrete (hard pack Perris dirt). Stanchions were made at the museum of yellow rope, poles, and rail wheels. It was a very informal family thing. We would all gather in Town Hall at the end of each day for Ed Vandeventer to give us the attendance numbers, and then most of us would adjourn to the Sizzler (later Tres Amigos) to get together for dinner.

Family is a good word to describe what the museum was in those days. Even if you got out to Perris infrenquently due to the drive — twice a year for Rail Fest — you knew most folks from the festivals. People were treated with respect.

But times change and things grow. In 2002 a little blue train came to Perris for the first time. It was back in 2003. Since then, it has been back every year, and is now back twice a year. The museum has added Thomas’ friend Percy the last three years, as well as adding the Peanut’s characters to our Pumpkin Patch event. This is all well and good, but has changed so many things.

First, the nature of membership has changed quite a bit. Back in the 80s and 90s, all members were volunteers interested in Rail history: in addition to rail fests, they would come out to work on train restoration, learn how to be operators, and take care of the museum. Since Thomas, membership has (at least to me) expanded to what I could call the parent brigade: parents who join museums for their kids for special admission prices and such. These folks don’t volunteer, they don’t become integrated into the family. It like being a member at the Zoo or the Art Museum. Such members are vital for a success of a museum, but they represent the move into the larger world, and the transition away from the small family. Casualty of growth.

Our little blue friend has also changed the physical plant. The blue friend brings in a green friend that isn’t Percy: one that can be spent on infrastructure improvements. Thomas has brought better signage, significantly more paving, better landscaping, and a whole host of big and little improvements from drainage to bathrooms. Members and donors have also met the challenge: new building such as Grizzley Flats (Barn 6), Four Tracks Out Back (Barn 7), and the Archives Building came from the members, as did more storage land that allowed all the old trains cluttering the interior of the museum to move moved away from visitors. Safer, cleaner, but less character. Infrastructure improvements are a good thing.

The growth of DOWT has changed the festival. The traditional railfest has gone by the wayside. There’s a member event still in the Spring, but it is nothing like what we did during the old railfest with just members as volunteers. In many ways, that’s because many of the older members have gone on to the big depot in the sky (and we miss them) or have moved away (and we miss them). Railfests are primarily DOWT these days, and the volunteers are provided by loads and loads of sharp and capable young men and women from groups like the Civil Air Patrol, Explorers, ROTC, nearby Military Schools — all earning service credit and doing good for the community. It is really wonderful to see these hard-working youngsters — you know there are good kids out there. But it is different than the family that we had.

The festival is now different in terms of events — largely because a festival of diesel, steam, and trolley cars just isn’t the draw it was 30 years ago. Now in addition to Thomas, there are kids areas and Thomas merchandise and photo-ops and food vendors — and it really is a well planned day. Here’s a mom’s eye view of DOWT that was shared this year. It really shows how the event is so so different. It is a celebration of Thomas, not the museum itself.

The museum has grown and added new events, such as the Steampunk Weekend. They’ve added things for the kids, like Daniel Tiger to the Trolley Car night. There has been increased thinking about the museum as a museum and its mission of preservation and interpretation as opposed to simple collecting. [To understand, contrast something like the Valley Relics Museum with the Museum of the San Fernando Valley]

I’m not trying to say that the museum has lost its way, or that Thomas is a cult leader like Sun Myung Moon or L. Ron Hubbard. Far far from that. I think that my buddies Thomas and Percy and their friends Charlie and Daniel has been great for the museum. Instead, I’m just noting the culmulation of incremental change that I’ve seen from 1987 to 2017. I miss the old days, the hard work, and most importantly, the people. But times change, and people pass and move away, and institutions grow and mature. OERM is still instilling a love of trains and travel history in our young, and bringing back memories to the old. But it is different, and festival feels oh so different.

But I still plan to be there next November.

Dining Notes: As we got out of the museum early (around 4pm), we meandered back home. Along the way, we found a great Salvadoran restaurant in Pomona, Hot Cazuelas (FB). We had a wonderful and inexpensive dinner, and talking with the owner later we discovered he used to own Salvadoran restaurants in our neck of the woods (North Hills) that we loved. One he sold and it has become something else, but the other (FB) has the cook from the one we loved and we still frequent them. We plan to go back. Hot Cazuelas is on Holt about 2 blocks W of Route 71, 1395 W. Holt Avenue. I had their Chicken with Grilled Onions and it was great, but their specialty is seafood.