Winding maze of train tracks sprawls among the Wyeths

It's Christmas. That means trees to most of us. But here at the Brandywine River Museum, it also mean trains.

This handsome, 19th-century brick gristmill, standing on the bank of the lazy Brandywine River, holds a wealth of Wyeth family and other American art - certainly enough to draw crowds anytime.

But during the holiday season, something more is added. Two days before Thanksgiving, museum staff members gather on the second floor and start putting together model railroads.

On Thanksgiving Day they're back setting up scenery, planting goldenrod and pampas grass ``trees'' on the hillside, sprinkling ``snow'' over hill and dale, and priming the tiny waterfall that runs under the covered bridge.

The winding maze of tracks sprawls in front of a starry-night backdrop painted by John McCoy, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law.

It's all part of the annual ``A Brandywine Christmas'' program.

For 10 years now, Steven Clarke has played host and chief engineer to wide-eyed tots, teens, and nostalgic ol'-timers, who flock here to see the miniature trains clickety-clack along 1,500 feet of O-gauge track.

No, Mr. Clarke didn't major in electric trains at school. He got his degree in English at West Chester State College.

When he couldn't find a job in his field that paid well, he saw the Brandywine ad and answered the whistle.

Though the railroad display lasts only five to six weeks, Clarke is a full-time museum employee. ``Engines and cars have to be repaired, oiled, and kept in running condition,'' he says.

There's no problem spotting Clarke in the crowded, darkened room. He's the one wearing hickory-striped Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls, sporting three inches of chin whiskers - and with tufts of hair sticking from under his cap like the straw man in ``The Wizard of Oz.''

The garb is appropriate. Clarke sees himself as being on stage, a living, moving part of the act. But for him - seven days a week, nine hours a day - the curtain never goes down.

``There's a lot of theater involved. It's a bit like a puppet show. You have to keep things moving and people entertained,'' he says. Clarke seldom gets a chance to eat lunch.

``I'm always on display,'' he says, peering over his wire specs, adding, ``And it's bad manners to eat in front of other people.''

Certainly, Miss Manners would approve of Mr. Clarke.

The museum has no budget for buying trains. Instead, they depend on the generous donations pulled from family attics and cellars.

``This one needs quite a bit of work,'' says Clarke, holding up a 1935 City of Denver engine - part of an old Lionel collection. ``Someone stored it in a box of rock salt they had evidently used as `snow' when they set it up. It's going to need a lot of body work as well as a new paint job.''

John Sheppard, director of public relations here, spoke of the enthusiasm kids express.

``Before we put the picket fence around the trains,'' he says, ``we had bullards around the tracks.

``But the kids would get so excited, they'd topple over the rope onto the floor.''

Mr. Sheppard went on to explain the little devilish acts of sabotage older kids try to get away with.

``They'd put gum on the tracks and try to derail the cars. Those were the Scout troops,'' he chuckled.

To Clarke, model trains are more than toys. They have a leavening effect - a way of bringing grown-ups and kids closer together.

``I think children really like being able to experience things with adults at their own level. Setting up and working on trains gives them the opportunity to do just that.''

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