The estate find that broke my slump

I wrote a few weeks ago about finding a scarce Marx windup train at an estate sale, but I actually went a good couple of years without finding a train worth buying until recently. The train that broke my slump was at a sale close to home, and I actually didn’t even set out to buy a train that day.

It was a cold and rainy morning in St. Louis. It was Friday, and I was in between jobs. The estate sale was close, so I went. Otherwise I would have had no reason to go. I don’t remember exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t expect to find a train.I walked into a bedroom empty-handed. I scanned it from the doorway, not really expecting to see anything interesting, but there, on the dresser, I saw something the size and shape of an O gauge motor. Yes, I can recognize an O gauge motor from 20 feet away. Call me what you will. So I walked over and picked it up. Clockwork, not electric. And it looked old, so it probably wasn’t a Marx, which was my first guess from 20 feet away. I figured it was probably an Ives, American Flyer, or Hafner. This being the midwest, American Flyer or Hafner would be more likely since both were made in Chicago.

Unfortunately the spring was broken and the wheels were gone. I had half a mind to buy it regardless. Sure, it was broken, but it was only a dollar, and cast-iron trains without motors turn up all the time. But wheels are hard to come by. I thought of the three-wheeled American Flyer locomotive on my mantle, and left the motor where I found it.

“Too bad,” I thought to myself. “I wonder where the rest of the train went?”

I got my answer a few minutes later. On my way out the door, I spotted the unmistakable sight of 1920s lithographed tin. There, in a dilapidated box in the living room, I spied three American Flyer passenger cars, and the body of an American Flyer #10 cast iron engine. I saw wheels, too. I raced back to the bedroom for the motor. It fit! The box was marked $50, which was about half what I estimated the train was worth, so I bought it. I asked for some plastic bags to wrap the train in, then carefully placed everything back in the box for safekeeping. I paid and brought the treasure home.

Safe at home, I went through the contents of the box. The spring was in three pieces; two were in the box and the last one was still in the motor. Aside from the spring, the motor was in very nice shape and very clean. And of course, there was a loop of 2-rail windup track.

I knew from being in the house that the owner of the train had once taught Old Testament at the high school I graduated from. He even wrote his own textbook. I never knew him, though. He had come and gone long before my time. But there were enough relics from there laying around that there wasn’t much mystery behind the man.

The train was in nice shape, so clearly he’d taken care of it. But why was it disassembled? Maybe he’d dug the train out late in life to show a child, and the spring broke in the process. Or maybe it broke long ago, and he decided one day to get it out and see if he could fix it, and never put it back together. Alas, there’s no fixing a broken clockwork spring. All you can do is take the spring to a shop that repairs clocks and buy the closest match they have for that spring’s size. An exact match isn’t as critical for a toy train as it is for a clock that has to keep perfect time. There just happens to be a clock repair shop about three miles from where I found the train, but I have no idea if that shop was there while the owner was still alive.

I’ll never know the answer to how it broke, so I turned to researching the train a bit more. It was an American Flyer #10, from 1925 or 1926. The cars dated from 1924-25, so probably the set was from 1925.

I still don’t have the train running. The clock shop tends to be open when I’m busy and closed when I’m not, but besides that, I know it’s only a matter of time before I find another windup train that has a different problem but has a working spring that fits. That’s the thing about estate sales. No matter what you can think of, one of these days it will turn up at one.

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