Imagine perfectly appointed railway cars scooting swiftly on stainless steel tracks, traversing trestle bridges, meandering through tunnels and over rivers, and chugging by picturesque landscapes. Now imagine it all takes place in your backyard.
If you’re a railway gardener, that’s really not a stretch. And, as it turns out, Minnesota has lots of railway garden enthusiasts.
The Minnesota Garden Railway Society (MGRS) was formed in 1990 by a group of model rail hobbyists who were, according to their website, “interested in running large-scale trains in backyards and gardens.” The group has grown to include about 100 passionate folks who integrate veritable railroad wonderlands into their gardens and landscape, and provide awe and inspiration to the rest of us who only dream we could be that creative or diligent.
MGRS also created a lovely layout at the Wayzata Depot, where folks from the club who don’t have railway gardens of their own can learn how to lay tracks, build tunnels and bridges, and run the trains through the 1940s-era Wayzata-esque town. The public is always invited to come and enjoy their handiwork at the Depot.
In addition to maintaining the Depot layout, each year members of the group open their doors—or gardens, if you will—to one another to share tricks of the trade, discuss new techniques and kibitz about their shared passion. We were lucky enough to get two of these enthusiasts to show us around so we could see firsthand just how awe-inspiring these garden railway layouts can be.
“First of all, there’s nothing ‘cute’ about garden railroads,” says Mark Schreier with a laugh, as we stand beside his garden railroad, trains snaking their way around the two loops that consist of 375 feet of track, and an occasional train whistle and horn filling the warm afternoon air. “Little ducks are cute, kittens are cute, but there’s nothing cute about trains.”
Trains, small or not, are serious business.
Schreier, who is president of MGRS, and his wife, Janet, who is a master gardener, found their Minnetonka home with its almost one-acre lot in 1995. “We were very lucky to find a spot with this much property,” says Janet Schreier.
After adding a stamped-concrete patio, pond and pergola, and transforming a whopper of a side-yard slope into a vision of beauty complete with flagstone steps, birch trees, trellises, myriad plants and shrubbery, a hosta glade and Janet’s stunning mosaics, they realized they needed some other projects to work on.
Really, Janet wanted somewhere else to plant.
“I told him if he let me take some of the lawn away, I would let him have some space for his garden railroad,” says Janet.
So in 2004, their garden railroad project was born. They had seven tons of boulders (moved into place by the Schreiers) to give the area some height and dimension, then began filling in the space.
They added alpine miniature trees and plants they trimmed to scale to look as if the whole thing had been plucked from real life, shrunk down and dropped into their backyard. It’s a whimsical world where maidenhair ferns, groomed just so, become forests. Stones become mountains. Crushed granite becomes ballasted track beds. Birdhouses double as buildings in their Americana-based “town” named Chipton, and their European village they call Daleburg; they are ceremoniously named after the chipmunks that find it great fun to scamper here and there around the garden railroad.
There are bridges. There are whimsical animals and fairies hidden throughout. And, of course, there are the trains. SchreierMark prefers the modern diesel engines and rolling stock, and has the whole set-up hooked up to an external remote control.
“We just come out here, turn on the trains and relax,” he says. “It’s really the perfect hobby for the whole family because Janet likes the plants and I really love the trains.”
The club has 20 open houses each year in various locations throughout the city for MGRS members and other garden-related tours.
“I like to say my true love is Janet,” SchreierMark says, “but my passion is trains.”
Twelve years ago, Jim Shaver was looking for a hobby. He and his wife, Cheryl, had recently sold their horses that once grazed their almost nine-acre parcel of land in Minnetrista, so he needed something to fill the time. As Shaver puts it, “I was having a mid-life crisis. Some guys buy Corvettes. I started buying trains.”
It started with an overhead layout, but quickly moved to a garden layout of grand proportions.
“I didn’t even know garden trains existed until I went to the Great Train Store in the Mall of America and they had an overhead layout,” says Jim. “I knew then I wasn’t limited to having something indoors.”
SchreierJim and Cheryl Shaver’s garden railroad came to be in 2004. Shaver found a landscaper who helped him reconfigure the backyard, which included a new retaining wall, deck and pond. From that point, Shaver and Cheryl took over creating their Gopher, Pug and Badger Garden Railway.
Jim and Cheryl’s labor of love consists of more than 300 feet of stainless steel track, three trestles, six bridges, one tunnel, three rivers, one pond, and a plethora of buildings including schools, churches, mills and coal buildings. There are three separate areas, including Pug Junction, Bear Canyon and Badger Valley. Of course, each area has its own distinct personality and corresponding accoutrements.
The consummate craftsman, Jim Shaver handcrafted (or at least modified) almost every structure in the garden. “The fun part of it is the building,” he says, revealing that he once spent 200 hours on one building. He also added lights to most of the buildings, passenger cars, streams, bridges and pond so they cast a warm glow across this man-made wonder.
Jim, who is not only handy but also introspective, has thought about where this passion for all things train comes from. His dad was Al Shaver, the famed announcer for the Minnesota North Stars hockey team, and in 1961 they moved from Edmonton, Alberta, to Montreal, Quebec.
“We rode on a long passenger train and had to sleep on it for two days,” says Shaver. “It was wonderful. I think I’ve always loved them since then.”
But like most gardeners, Shaver’s garden will always be a work in progress. He has dreams of adding another loop near the back of his property, which will one day connect to a train station—handmade by him, of course. There will be the Gopher Uranium Mines, and he even has an idea for an Addams Family-inspired scene where a remote control train will run into an oil tanker and explode on contact.
“I need to learn a little more on pyrotechnics to do that,” he says with a chuckle.
Recently, Jim has begun consulting, designing and building railway gardens for folks who don’t have the time or the knowledge to create them.
“It’s really the best of both worlds, because they can get what they want and I can do what I love to do,” he says. “This is such a passion for me and to be paid to do what you love—well, that’s really something special.”
Learn more about the Minnesota Garden Railway Society at mgrs.org.