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Farewell to a St. Louis Christmas tradition

I saw something sad in the papers this week: Macy’s is closing its downtown St. Louis store, the former flagship Famous-Barr (or Famous and Barr, if you’re old enough) store.

And that means this past Christmas was the last Christmas for the American Flyer storefront Christmas layout.

That store, of course, hasn’t sold American Flyer trains since the 1960s. Some years, even fairly recently, it’s been possible to walk into that store and buy a Lionel starter set. It’s not uncommon at all to find toy trains in their original boxes in St. Louis with a Famous-Barr price tag still affixed. In the 1950s, Lionel and American Flyer had a good rivalry. This particular layout was American Flyer S scale, and used a mixture of vintage and modern production trains and accessories.

St. Lous downtown train layout

This is part of the American Flyer train layout that was in the downtown Famous-Barr (later Macy’s), photographed in 2007.

Given the number of trains that store sold over the years, it seemed appropriate when a group of local hobbyists convinced Famous-Barr to let them set up a train layout in the downtown store in the mid 1980s, and after that store became a Macy’s, the new owners continued the tradition. Originally, train layouts in large department stores were designed to help retailers sell trains to the parents of little boys, but as the decades wore on, boys became more interested in other toys, such as slot cars and video games, and trains retreated to the realm of specialty shops, making the large department store display layouts of yesteryear obsolete.

But there’s just something about going downtown in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and seeing a train layout in a department store window that seems so American. I took my sons a couple of times, and it was fun. We would drive to Shrewsbury, then buy tickets and ride the Metrolink downtown to Union Station, then walk a block or two over to Macy’s–which resided in the Railway Exchange Building–to see the train. Yes, we rode a real train to a real train station to see the toy trains.

We didn’t make it there this past year. Now I wish we had.


St Louis downtown train layout

The downtown St. Louis department store layout featured American Flyer trains, both steam and diesel, on multiple levels.

The former Macy’s downtown train layout came into the possession of the National Museum of Transport, in West County, off Dougherty Ferry Road. They set the layout up at Christmas most years. Although known for their collection of real trains, the museum is starting to amass a fair bit of St. Louis-related toy trains as well. In addition to the former downtown layout, they also are in possession of a collection of Aero monorails, which were made in St. Louis. In some ways it’s not the same as seeing it in a department store window, but you can get up a lot closer to it without a window in the way now.

Of course I’ve taken my sons to see the trains at the train museum.

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1 thought on “Farewell to a St. Louis Christmas tradition”

  1. Macys seems to be good at that. They bought the Daytons chain locally (Daytons founded and later spun off Target), and a few months ago they closed the former “flagship” downtown Daytons Store in St. Paul. Every year they’d have a giant Christmas display that would take up an entire floor. They’d have a spring flower show and other events throughout the year.

    The Daytons corporation signed an agreement with St. Paul for a “loan” of sorts about a decade ago. The agreement was that if the store remained open for ten years, repayment wouldn’t be necessary. About a week after that ten year agreement ended, they announced the closing of the store. Kind of sad that Macys does that…

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