In a room off the detached garage of a home in southeast Cedar Rapids, it’s always the early 1950s in central Pennsylvania, in miniature. Steam locomotives haul coal from area mines to rail yards where their trains are combined into longer trains to be forwarded to distant markets.
The town of Renovo bustles with activity in the rail yards and along the downtown main drag.
“One of the things I really try to specialize in is developing layouts that can be sort of like a time machine for people,” said Darren Ferreter, standing in a client’s 20-by-20-foot room dominated by the precise scale replica of Renovo and surrounding countryside.
“For example, where did you grow up? I go through these series of questions to develop a time period for their layout.”
Creating dozens of “time machines” for customers all over the country has allowed Cedar Rapids native Ferreter to pursue his lifelong fascination for trains.
“My dad and my grandfather were both rail buffs,” said. “We spent a lot of time watching trains.”
Ferreter remembers playing with model trains when he was about 3 years old. By 12, he was taking commissions to customize scale locomotives and cars, painting them in authentic liveries that weren’t commercially available.
The sideline continued during Ferreter’s stint in the Air Force. Fortuitously stationed in Omaha, also home to the Union Pacific Railroad, he built and painted custom models for display at the railroad’s corporate headquarters.
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He also devoted three years building the layout at the Pottawattamie County Historical Society in Council Bluffs.
Returning to Cedar Rapids, Ferreter spent almost 20 years managing food-service operations for local businesses and institutions including Coe College and Mercy Medical Center.
“About 13 years or so ago there was a good opportunity for change,” he said.
“I started over here doing some work on this layout and a man came over here and said, ‘This is amazing, would you consider building one of these for me?’ I had never really thought about it before because I was just doing this socially. He said, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ and he ended up being a really tremendous customer.”
Building that layout “loosely based on Marion” led Ferreter to the Marion Heritage Center, where he built the museum’s model of 1950s Marion.
“That got me in the door at the Iowa Children’s Museum,” he said.
He built that museum’s model railroad about eight years ago.
“It’s an interesting test bed for manufacturers who send me things to test,” Ferreter said. “They run about 500 actual miles a year, the distance from Chicago to Omaha.
“That’s a real workout for an HO scale train.”
By 2009, Model Railroad Dreams became a full-time job. Ferreter has customers nationwide, with concentrations in the Chicago area and Iowa’s neighboring states.
He still does custom painting and model building and repair, but “my bread and butter in this part of the business is layout building,” he said. “I travel to people’s houses and build layouts in place.”
Ferreter quotes an hourly rate, and clients “can use me as much or as little as they want. Sometimes I’m scheduled out weeks in advance.”
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Ferreter and his customers keep up with advancements in electronics and digital control systems allowing more realistic operations.
“Most people are interested in the technology,” he said. “You can just focus on running your train.
“It’s not like it was 20 years ago. You can really mimic what’s happening in the real world, and that’s what customers really like.”
Most of Ferreter’s work is in HO scale — 1/87th of the real thing — closely followed by larger O scale — 1/48th. After building the plywood foundation for customers’ miniature worlds, he’ll lay track, install the complex wiring and finish with details such as realistic buildings, highways, autos and scenery.
Many clients pitch in themselves as time, interest, and skill levels allow.
Along with model railroads, Ferreter also specializes in maintenance and repair of pipe organs, including those at the Paramount and Theatre Cedar Rapids. That work also takes him around the country.
It’s all enough to keep him busy six days a week. during his free time, Ferreter is developing his own home layout.
“We just moved to Ely in January, and the plans are in place,” Ferreter said. “I just purchased plywood last weekend.”
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AT A GLANCE
• Owner: Darren Ferreter
• Business: Model Railroad Dreams
• Phone: (319) 573-8559