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Glendale resident Jim Poehlman lets his imagination run wild with volcanoes, circuses and Disney characters in his 4,000-square-foot electric train display. Jeff Rumage/Now Media Group


GLENDALE - Jim Poehlman may be 65 years old, but he still likes to play with toys.

Anyone who has wandered south of Kletzsch Park on Bender Road has probably seen the retired mailman tinkering in his back yard on his model train railroad.

Poehlman's fantasy train world, which he calls Bridgewood Garden Railroad, started 12 years ago when his wife bought him a starter electric train set as he recovered from shoulder surgery.

What started out as a figure eight around two trees in his backyard has creeped larger and larger each year as Jim asks his wife Mary for more land. With the added acreage, of course, comes the need for more and more trains and figurines, which he collects online.

"One of the larger mistakes I made was showing him how to use eBay," Mary Poehlman said.

Jim's train collection has since grown to a dozen locomotives — only nine of which Mary knew about — and more than 65 pieces of "rolling stock" such as cabooses and boxcars.

Like many train collectors, Poehlman's interest in the train cars is rivaled by the sights that are theoretically seen outside of the miniature train windows.

Within a 100-foot-by-40-foot garden bed, Poehlman has laid about 400 feet of track running through a miniature colonial village and Disney fantasy world, which contains everything from the 56 Mickey Mouse characters to the more modern characters from "Frozen" and "Moana." 

"If you can name a Disney animated film, I can pretty much guarantee it's out there," he said.

Poehlman's back yard creation also includes a miniature farm, where he grows real scallions and radishes. He has also created a miniature circus with antique circus cars.

"I always told everybody that I was going to run away with the circus, but this is the furthest I got, so I built my own circus," he said.

While a majority of the figurines and buildings along the railroad track are requested by his grandchildren or the neighbor kids, Poehlman is the first to admit that the little boy inside of him comes out as he dreams up new ideas for his hobby, which he describes as "my fantasy, my wife's indulgence and my kids' inheritance."

Poehlman's interest in trains started as a child. His father gave him a train set when he was 2 years old, but he wasn't allowed to play with it for much of his younger years. When he was 12, he snuck down into the basement and set up the train without his father's permission, showing him that he was capable of setting up and playing with the train.

Now that he has his own train set, he lets his grandchildren and neighborhood kids control the speed and sounds of the train with the remote control.

"The kids actually get to run the train, which to me is the best part of it," he said. "You go to all these train shows and you see the grandfathers like myself running the trains while the kids watch. I think the kids should get to drive the trains."

Poehlman's interest in trains never faded through adulthood. During his time working at the downtown post office, he would go downstairs on his lunch break to watch the trains depart from the depot.

Trains also rekindle memories of his grandfather John, a track foreman who laid the track for the Soo Line and Chicago Northwestern railroad companies. John laid the railroad tracks that run through Kletzsch Park, just across the street from Jim and Mary's house.

As you might expect, the kids in the neighborhood share Poehlman's enthusiasm for the electric train set. The two young boys next door help him set up the figurines and buildings every spring. In turn, Poehlman named a Plexiglas lake after one boy and a baseball field after the other boy.

Another family's 2-year-old girl also gets a kick out of blowing the training whistle and ringing the bell through the remote control.

Poehlman's fantasy train world is uniquely personal to him, and shows how much he values his family members. 

In the colonial village, he has detailed the miniature buildings to include the names of his son's accounting business, his daughter's winery and his wife Mary's former law office. He also includes a postal office, where he worked for 40 years, as well as Village Ace Hardware, where he works part-time.

After noticing how enthralled his granddaughters were with the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, he built his own haunted mountain — as well as Bald Mountain from "Fantasia" — using rose cones, burlap, stucco and paint.

It's evident after talking with Poehlman how much pride he has in his model train village and what it represents to him. He's happy to see the looks on the faces of younger children as they control the train.

"When all the other little kids come over, I ask them if they would like to run the train," he said. "Whether they are a boy or a girl, their face lights up. That's what I enjoy."

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