WATERTOWN — Watertown train collector Harvey Ziemer has always felt an attraction to tracks — and everything that runs on them.
Since he began collecting, the model railroad enthusiast has filled his home, basement, yard and two large outbuildings with elaborate displays of miniature trains and tracks, and he loves to share his hobby with others.
That’s what brought Ziemer and his seven-level traveling train display to Wisconsin Farm Technology Days this summer, and that’s what leads him to open up his yard to visitors during the month of December, to allow others to experience the delight he finds in the miniature trains.
Ziemer, a retired farmer still living on a portion of his family’s multigenerational farm just north of Watertown, started collecting with a G-gauge set.
One single train and tracks just spurred on his enthusiasm, however. Soon he was the proud owner of multiple trains and train accessories, and the collection has only grown since.
“It got out of hand,” he admitted with a smile.
He has trains in various sizes, or “gauges” to use model train parlance.
Train gauge is a size measurement referring to the distance between the outside rails of the track, measured from the interior.
Life-size would be “standard gauge,” measuring 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches inside the rails.
Z gauge, the smallest model trains, measure 0.25 inch inside the rails. N gauge measure 0.375”, HO gauge 0.625”, S gauge 0.875”, O gauge 1.25”, and G gauge 1.75”.
Most of Ziemer’s pieces are “O” or “G” gauge.
He has personally assembled all of the displays, putting together the train rails, setting up the set pieces, and in many cases, building the structures on which the trains run.
His displays have been showcased around the area, from the Watertown Dairy Breakfast to Madison train shows to the Dodge County Antique Power Show to Ixonia Vintage Tractor Club events.
Ziemer farmed until 1996, and then he sold his farming operating, building the house where he now lives on a corner of the old farmstead. The historic family home is now occupied by his son.
After retiring from farming, Ziemer went to work for a cheese company for a while. When the local cheese plant closed, he moved to the company’s operations in Marshfield and when that plant was sold, he served as a field operator in Illinois.
Now he’s fully retired and has more time to devote to his hobbies, which include collecting Massey Ferguson tractors as well as model trains.
His train displays started out relegated to the lower level of his home, in the well-appointed walk-out basement. But naturally, they expanded from there, moving into the upper portion of the house, the former machine sheds and into the yard.
Ziemer’s seven-layer traveling train display is about as big as a mid-size car and twice as tall, featuring a helix of tracks inside another helix.
“Designing it was the hardest part,” Ziemer said. “I made all of the supports first. Then I got a little discouraged and it was a year later before I picked up the project again.”
Once he’d finished the outside structure, Ziemer showed his work to some friends, who suggested he had enough space to fit another whole helix inside. So he built a second structure to fit inside the first, using a skid loader with a boom to placing the new piece inside the surrounding structure.
“Then the top looked ugly, so I built the top level to go on top of the rest,” he said.
Big as it is, the double-helix display represents just a small fraction of Ziemer’s train collection.
Right now, the traveling display takes up a place of pride near the front of one of Ziemer’s spacious machine sheds, but the intricate displays continue into the back room of the shed and two rooms in an upper level.
One display, featuring an upside -down Christmas tree, had a prime spot at Watertown’s old-fashioned “Market” shopping mall in holiday seasons past.
Several sets incorporate summer scenes with carnivals or fairs.
One upstairs display includes a scale model of both Ziemer’s own house and the original farmhouse his family has occupied since 1882 and where his son lives now, along with all of the farm buildings.
Another upstairs display includes a Green Bay Packers-themed model train running around a model of the Packers’ stadium, filled with tiny figures of people.
Ziemer said his wife Jean, helped out in preparing and setting up all of the figures to go into the stadium.
“It was hard to find enough people to fill that up,” he said. “Usually they come on cards with 4-5 people.”
“We had to scarf these up every place we went,” Jean added.
Another display incorporates multiple tunnels on multiple levels, where trains run into the side of a carefully constructed mountain.
Ziemer said he loves to run the trains, but even more than that, he loves the design challenge that comes with every new scenario he comes up with.
Outside, the Ziemers’ large, garden-gauge trains run through landscaping and seasonal decorations, with a gazebo in the background.
This garden train set and gazebo even provided the backdrop for a son’s wedding a few years back. Ziemer said one of the highlights for him was running the set-up — which included a “Just Married” sign,” after the ceremony was complete.
At Christmastime, the outdoor set and the surrounding trees are intertwined with light and holiday decorations.
“This may be the last year we do the lights outside,” Ziemer said. “We’re getting older and that’s getting hard to do.”
Ziemer said of all of the pieces he owns, his favorite is a G-gauge “Big Boy,” the biggest theme engine ever built.
“They also make a version of this train with live steam, but that’s out of my realm,” he said.
As his collection has grown, Ziemer has welcomed lots of tour groups through his property, many of them from area tractor or antique equipment collectors’ organizations.
For the last several years, he has welcomed the public to see his outdoor Christmas display, in which model trains are a central feature.
“I love to see people come through and enjoy what I’ve built — especially all the kids,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of people come through year after year because it’s impossible to see it all on one visit,” he said.
While he has the seasonal display up, he has also tried to collect money to benefit an area charity, from the food pantry to Watertown historical society to the R.O.C. teen center.
In 2015, his property was featured in the Watertown Parade of Homes, and the extensive collections drew lots of positive comments from visitors.
If people wish to visit, they can find the Ziemers’ property at W7018 Provimi Road, off the roundabout that connects Highway 26 and Highway 16 just north of town. Handmade signs off Provimi Road direct people to the display.