Working on the railroad a lifetime passion for Aspen visitor
Frank Herzog is like a lot of regular visitors to Aspen.
A retired lawyer from Houston, he and his wife enjoy taking in the classical concerts under the Benedict Music Tent, the myriad discussions held at The Aspen Institute, and the exhibits at Andersen Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass.
“It keeps us busy,” he said.
Something else keeps Herzog busy, and it has nothing to do with Aspen’s summer offerings, or the skiing that originally attracted his wife, Dorene, and him to the area in the late 1960s.
Like the Buddhist monks who build elaborate sand mandalas they later disseminate as a demonstration of impermanence, Herzog constructs elaborate miniature train sets each summer before he disassembles them and starts over again the next year.
Herzog, 82, has been immersed in model trains since he was 6 years old when his folks gave him his first Lionel, and he’s been building and breaking down the tracks and their surroundings in Aspen every summer for at least the last two decades.
“It’s always a work in progress,” he said. “And I’ll take this apart and then do it again the next year.”
Step into the couple’s rental home in the West End neighborhood and everything appears normal — at first. Downstairs in the entertainment room, however, is a bustling scene alive with tracks, electric trains and a glut of trinkets Herzog handpicked from secondhand stores in Aspen and Carbondale.
The room is a place where he can unwind, as the tiny locomotives hum earnestly, boxcars and cabooses in tow, through a festive world inspired by Aspen and Americana that Herzog proudly designed himself.
“I get a big kick out of just watching these trains and find it very relaxing to sit here,” he said.
But before he can truly relax, Herzog, wearing the hats of architect, landscaper and engineer, worked three or four hours a day, for two weeks, before the set was ready for prime time.
“The trick,” he said, “is to get your track running properly and build around it.”
Herzog had a stroke of good fortune when workers at a home construction site gave him some slabs of wood on which to put the tracks.
“I brought them home and dressed them up with sandpaper,” he said.
After that’s when the fun begins.
“I’m more into the landscaping,” he said.
Look no further than the Aspen Thrift Shop, which he visits regularly, using his wife-approved stipend of two bucks a day to support his hobby.
“I’ve just been amazed of what one can buy what people return to the thrift stores,” he said.
Herzog’s most recent carnation — which he recently broke down because he and his wife are headed home next month — was largely modeled after Aspen. It included a Paepcke Park with an American-themed flair — complete with tiny replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the White House, Uncle Sam and other patriotic emblems.
There’s also the towns of Aspen and Glenwood Springs — the way Herzog envisions them — as well as what he calls Aspen Lake, adorned with faux aquatic life and boats.
Waterfalls, trestle bridges and tunnels also dominate the detailed landscape, as well as Scrabble pieces, model aircraft, salt and pepper shakers, flags, ceramic bunnies, and other second-hand store features.
“I go everyday to the thrift store to see if I see things that I think would appeal to children,” he said, “but really to me.”
That the Aspen Thrift Shop’s profits go to charities and fund scholarships makes the hobby even more gratifying, he said.
Eventually he hopes he’ll have great-grandchildren to enjoy a pleasure he’s had most of his life.
“I have three children and 11 grandchildren, but they’re all too old,” he said. “I need some great-grandchildren.”