Thursday, March 12, 2020

Throwback/Thankful Thursday: Chester (Chet) Rech

Going back through old photos looking for a road construction pic I took almost 35 years ago was a real trip down Memory Lane. I've mentioned Chet Rech here and there on this blog, but suffice it to say here that he was a huge early influence. That's him in the photo above, with his original 4x8 layout. Alas! the layout itself is no longer, having suffered two long moves - from Wilmington, VT to Milford, CT then to Old Saybrook. But Chet's work lives on, having been salvaged & reconstituted as the Somerset & Mill Hollow (aka "The Air Line")

I wrote the following sometime during the winter of 2005, shortly after his widow visited the layout when it was in Milford. At that point, I and a bunch of friends (many of whom still help on the Valley Line today!) had restored the original layout to operating condition for her to see & enjoy.

That was way back before blogs, so I never did anything with this little story. But remembering Chet's road construction story prompted me to go back and find it, so I'll share it here with you. It's another example of how the greatest part of this hobby are its people. I hope you enjoy reading it.

4x8 and 400 pounds: A Legacy in HO Scale

"Looks like you're pretty interested in trains." The small-town librarian noticed the pile of magazines stacked around me like sandbags around a foxhole.  It was the summer of 1983.  I was fourteen years old, away on family vacation and it had been raining for days.  With nothing else to do, the library's collection of Model Railroader magazines was a godsend.  I'd purchased my first copy that January and was eagerly soaking up the contents of every issue I could get my hands on, learning as much as I could about my new hobby.

"The man who donated them has quite a train layout.  I'm sure he wouldn't mind a visit - he lives just outside of town."  I could hardly wait to ask my dad if he could take me.  We called the number the librarian gave us and were soon welcomed into Chet and Martha's home like old friends.

After a short visit, we made our way to the basement.  Standing there in the middle of the floor, surrounded by workbenches, power tools, and various storage items was a standard 4x8 layout with brass track and 18" radius curves.  The Mill Hollow & Southern was based on the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington – or the Hoot Toot & Whistle, as Chet liked to call it – and what detail!  Every building was lighted and almost every one had a full interior.  There were two towns on two different levels and more mini-scenes than I could count.  It was obvious that Chet's primary interest was in detailing rather than operation.  His passion was evident in every nook and cranny.

My dad and I visited again the next summer and once I got my driver's license, I was able to make the trips by myself.  Over the years, we developed a friendship that went beyond model railroading.  Having lost both sets of grandparents way too soon, Chet and Martha became willing surrogates.  I even took my girlfriend, then fiancĂ©e, to visit.  When we were married in 1995, they came to our wedding.

I had known Chet for over 15 years when his health started to decline and when I read Martha's letter of his passing it was like losing a member of my own family.  A few months afterward, Martha phoned asking us to visit.  She was going through Chet's things and wondered if I'd be interested in taking the train layout.  In my mind, there could be no better keepsake of our friendship, and my dad and I made the long trip up to Vermont to pick it up.

When we got to the basement, we discovered to our surprise that we couldn't actually lift it!  When we tried to pick it up, it felt like it was bolted to the floor.  Only then did we realize that Chet had used "natural" scenery materials.  Those weren't hydrocal rock castings we'd admired all those years, but actual chunks of granite and stone!  And everything was covered in gallons of concrete-like plaster.  It was a beautiful layout, but weighed close to 400 pounds.

We had quite a time getting the railroad out of the basement in one piece, but it finally made its way home where it became the only "complete" section of railroad I had.  Once I set it up, I discovered that it had deteriorated over the years - and the big move hadn't done it any favors either.  Martha said she didn't remember the last time the trains actually ran, but I was determined to return the layout to its former glory.  One of my proudest moments was when Martha visited us for Thanksgiving later that year and I was able to show off the restoration, complete with a train operating over track that hadn't seen any action in years.

The result was a near perfect restoration – and anyone that sees the layout would recognize Chet’s work immediately.  The Mill Hollow & Southern is sure to be around for a very long time, giving me a chance to share the talent of a man whose attention to detail inspired me in my own modeling efforts and whose friendship gave me a legacy that lives on.

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