Treasuring Trains

Posted: December 14, 2022

Whether it’s a classic Lionel model train or the more modern Thomas the Tank Engine, toy trains are treasured, especially during the holidays.

Steve Faivre’s interest in model trains started at an early age.

“When I was a kid I had a steam locomotive, a few train cars and some race cars,” explained Steve. “I enjoyed colliding the race cars with the train as much as watching the train go around the track.” The family’s ping pong table doubled as a base for their toy train track back then.

While his interest in model trains was sparked during his youth, it really ignited during his retirement years.

Steve Faivre controls his model trains with an app on his iPad and computer. He can control as many as 120 train engines at one time. His train layout is quite elaborate with 600 feet of train tracks.

Model Train Hobbyist

Five years ago, Steve started building his train layout in the basement of their newly built Craftsman home in Sycamore. Taking his hobby of model railroading seriously, he created his train layout for an entire room in their home.

The train project utilized his lifelong engineering skills for farm machinery companies, coupled with his woodworking talents.

Steve used his CAD system to design the layout measuring 32.8 feet by 6.8 feet. The operating layout replicates that of working trains with HO train cars, 1/87th scale, mind you with all the bells and whistles!

“I’m what you call a wildcatter, which means I have a dedicated model train set of this era and geography,” noted Steve. “It’s not modeled after anything. It’s my own unique design.”

The train layout landscape is representative of the Midwest, with some similarities to DeKalb County’s flat lands, contrasted by other parts of the country with rolling hills and valleys in which the trains travel.

The Union Pacific train engine is among Steve Faivre’s assortment of HO scale engines and cars, replicas of the real trains.

Steve built the 1’x4’ and 1’x6’ base platform in his wood shop and then assembled it in the basement. Atop the base are two layers of foam, one of the layers created the terrains and mountains. Most of the scenery and accessories were purchased, such as houses, barns, city buildings, a gas station, train depot and roundabout, trees, parks and ponds, a church, a restaurant, cars, and a diverse group of people and animals.

Steve’s niece, Brenna Zurbrugg Hale, designed, installed and painted much of the scenery. With the assistance of Patsy Schauer of Waterman, she also painted a skyline mural on a 75-foot-long wraparound canvas which complements the train landscape. Off in the distance is the Chicago skyline seen in the mural.

One of the most eye-catching and largest features is a grain bin setup. Steve built the two large grain bins by gluing together styrene pieces to form the ribs of the bin. He added load out hoppers and an ethanol plant nearby for trains to haul the corn from the grain bins to the plant.

With his ties to agriculture, Steve also has in his landscape John Deere tractors and farm implements, cows and pigs, corn and soybeans, and a DEKALB winged ear sign. Plus he has 50 grain train cars.

In the rural countryside he includes energy generating components like two wind towers and solar panels, of which he is a proponent.

He is most proud of the terrain pieces he constructed out of wood: the viaducts, ramps, and arched and suspension bridges. He welcomed the challenge of putting his bandsaw, planer and router to work after he had figured out formulas to mimic the curves and inclines.

Currently he is working on adding one more structure to the landscape – a replica of the Resource Bank building in Sycamore. His granddaughter Humayra Sperling, who lives in Boston, has been helping him with the intricate details like applying tiny rocks to the outside of the building to resemble the historic structure.

Steve hard-wired the train layout utilizing two electrical circuits to power the engines and scenery lighting and digitally control them with his iPad. He uses an app to activate the trains. He can control as many as 120 engines at one time from his computer and iPad.

“There’s as much (electronics) underneath the layout as there is on top,” said Steve. “The electronics, wires, switches all control the movement of the trains.”

This unique roundabout is the hub for Steve Faivre’s trains. He designed the track and landscape plan for his model train layout using his CAD system.

To understand the magnitude of his train system, he has built 600 feet of train tracks with 73 switches to move his 233 train cars on the tracks!

His large assortment of HO train cars and engines include Union Pacific diesel engines, passenger trains, hopper cars, car carriers, lumber cars, box cars, cabooses, steam engines and container train cars, among others.

What’s next? “I still need to caliberate more train cars and engines,” noted Steve. “And get the rest of the electronics in place.”

This hobby of Steve’s provides enjoyment for him. “It’s an entertainment program for us to share with family and friends,” he said. It also occupies his time as a retired engineer.

His wife, Pat, supports his hobby and they both appreciate that their niece and granddaughter are involved.

Lifelong Engineer

Steve, 71, looks back on his life journey from his rural roots to general engineering jobs.

He is the third oldest of seven siblings who grew up on the JP Faivre Farm in rural DeKalb. After earning a BS in general engineering from the University of Illinois in 1973, he returned to his family’s grain farm and worked there for 20 years. During that time he also earned an Executive MBA from NIU – he was one of the first farmers to complete this program.

For several years, Steve Faivre was a concept engineer for Case IH and John Deere companies, during which time he developed 24 concept farm related patents. He has the patents on display in his basement across from his train layout.

He left the farm to work for a mapping software company for a few years before being hired by Case IH and then John Deere, working as a concept engineer for the farm machinery companies.

During this time he developed 24 concept farm-related patents. He and Dave Larson had the first patent for a yield monitor used on a combine to track yields during harvest. His patents are displayed on his basement wall across from his train layout.

Steve continued to be a managing partner in JP Faivre Farms until his retirement. His younger brother Roger (sister-in-law Vickie) and nephew Josh now run the family farm operation.

Steve and Pat have two adult children – David, a computer engineer, who resides in Oklahoma City; and Megan Sperling, a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled her children and resides in Boston; and five grandchildren.

His young grandchildren prompted Steve to acquire a few Thomas the Tank Engines because they “like trains which have faces!”

Steve’s love of trains has him networking with other model train hobbyists; he is an officer of the Rock River Valley Division of the National Model Railroad Association.

“At this point I’m focusing on containment – figuring out what I need to do next. And get
everything operational,” said Steve.