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Christmas village completes railroading room 'Pop Pop' had designed into home
Emley shares railroading bug with grandsons
Bill Emley, center background, watches as son William, 44, right, pilots model trains with grandsons Waylon, 4, far left, Wyatt, center, and Walker, right background. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Fifteen years ago when Bill and Debbie Emley had their house built in a subdivision on the edge of Statesboro, he gave some special instructions to the contractor concerning the model railroading room.

“When my wife and I were fortunate to move to Statesboro here, I told St. Andrews Builders, Jamey Cartee, I said, ‘OK, all the rooms of the house belong to my wife except two:  one is the garage and two is my train room above the garage,’” Bill Emley recalls.

That was before the birth of eldest grandson Walker, 14, whose parents’ making Brooklet their home had been the central reason his grandparents moved here.  Then came Wyatt and Weston, both now 6.  Bill Emley, “Pop Pop” to the boys, shared with his grandsons the three concentric, interconnected, switchable rail loops that fill a platform built along one wall of the 16-by-20-foot room. 

One loop carries a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, another loop a freight train, and another a train dedicated to the U.S. Navy. Walker’s favorite, the Navy train pulls a submarine of a flat car, a rocket fuel tank car, and a special caboose with a working searchlight. Between the rail lines rise a water tower, a windmill of the type that once dotted the American countryside, and the buildings of farms, town and industry.

Beside the transformer with big, kid- and grandfather-friendly handles for controlling the speed of trains, a plywood panel is dotted with toggle switches and a couple of red pushbuttons. Pushing one button causes the garage door to open on the Sinclair Oil gas station, where a ’57 Chevy rolls out to the pumps, which chime. Another button operates a crude oil pumpjack, under the derrick of a nearby oil well.

Winter wonderland

All of this was noisy fun enough for three grandsons and one Pop Pop, maybe. But after the arrival of Waylon, now 4, their grandparents saw the need for a fourth trainset so all four grandsons would have one to operate. 

So last year, Bill Emley assembled the Christmas village, on a separate, smaller platform on the other side of the room. This came as a suggestion from his wife, and it turns out he didn’t need to buy much, given the couple’s large collection of Christmas village miniatures and the model railroading props he had been squirreling away for decades.

“We had so many little buildings that he had packed up,” said Debbie Emley. “I said, ‘Well, do we have enough to make a village?’ He says, ‘I’m not sure,’ but once we started to get them out, it’s like, ‘Holy cow! Let’s do a Santa village!’”

Village buildings are decked for Christmas in the clearing of a forest of fir trees in the snow. Santa operates an animal rescue center.

Much of this layout might be from a Hallmark special or a Currier and Ives print made 3D. But there in back stands a fairly convincing miniature of the Averitt Center for the Arts’ main gallery and Emma Kelly Theater.

“We didn’t even know we had that,” she said.

The winter wonderland locomotive makes steam and pulls hopper cars that deliver miniature presents and real candy canes, as Waylon, Wyatt, Weston — and probably also Walker — took turns demonstrating Monday evening. They were all there with their parents, the younger William and Mandy Emley of Brooklet. Also down from Atlanta was Bill and Debbie Emley’s daughter, Jessica.

Debbie takes interest

We may notice that Debbie Emley, who let her husband plan a train room, has developed some interest in his hobby. On the platform of non-Christmas trains, near miniature Briggs & Stratton and Viracon trucks, was a Knoll Furniture truck. Unlike those others, Knoll has no Statesboro plant.

But Debbie Emley once worked for Knoll in Pennsylvania. And not far from the tracks near the little highway stands a long, red miniature building, “Betty’s Diner.”

“Betty was my mother, and she passed away, but she was a waitress at a diner for many years,” Debbie Emley said.

Also in the miniature landscape stands a bridge emblazoned, “Trenton Makes — The World Takes.”  Bill Emley grew up on a farm near Trenton, New Jersey, and the real bridge spans the Delaware River from Trenton into Pennsylvania.

Origin of a passion

His stepfather worked as a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lined up under the edges of the model train platforms are several railroad lanterns Emley has collected, including a big signal lantern with red and green lenses.  He has also acquired a never-opened Pennsylvania Roadroad calendar from 1951, the year he was born.

But Emley credits his Uncle John, who kept a small trainset in his basement at Christmas, with his interest in the hobby. One year as a boy, Emley gave his uncle a miniature of a woman seated on a park bench to add to the layout.

“And he loved it so much that  he  picked me up and said, ‘OK Billy, now you put this on the layout,’” Emley recalls.

Years later after he grew up, he realized he had placed the park bench in the middle of the road, but his uncle always kept it there.

Emley served 22 years in the U.S. Navy as a communications specialist before retiring with the rank of chief petty officer. He then worked for RCA-General Electric as a satellite communications specialist. Here in Statesboro he has done technical work for Briggs & Stratton and Viracon.

A workbench, covered with tools ranging from a hammer and a variety of screwdrivers to a multimeter and a can of WD-40, occupies the fourth corner of his railroading room.

After some derailments this week he will have some repairs to make.  A mountain range for a tunnel to pass through is a work in progress, and adding a circus — at least one grandson loves them and his grandfather already has a big-top tent — is an idea for the future.

“As they truly say, for a true model railroader, their layout is never completed,” Emley said.

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