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From the Forsyth Independent Press, Dec. 23, 2004
Story and photo by Kate Bertin

Forsyth revelers have Mike Blakesley's grandfather to thank for one of the best holiday traditions in town: the electric train village at Valley Auto.

It all started when Mike Blakesley was five years old. His grandfather, Glen Blakesley, gave the young Mike a train set for his fifth birthday - a plastic Lionel engine, cars and a track for them to run on.

   The next year, Glen bought a bigger, better engine for his grandson. It was so much bigger that the engine wouldn't fit around the tight curves of the track he already had. So the year after that, Mike received more track and more cars.

"After that, I was off and running," he said.

As a boy, Mike was more interested in playing with the trains than in collecting them. When his grandfather would admonish him to keep the boxes and instructions, and that they might be worth money someday, the boy thought he was being a little over-cautious.

When he hit high school and started to drive full-sized cars, Mike's interest in model trains waned rapidly. He packed away all his trains in a box and stored them for another time.

About 20 years ago, Blakesley and his father, Bruce, got the idea of running the train around a stack of merchandise at Valley Auto. When Glen owned Blakesley's Cigar Store on Forsyth's Main Street, Mike said, he used to run a model train around a Christmas tree every year.

"We thought, why don't we do something like that?" he said. So for many years, Valley Auto had a little train running in a circle at Christmas time.

When Mike married his wife, Lynn, she didn't like the merchandise in the center of the train layout, he admitted. She suggested creating a holiday scene, complete with buildings, trees and people. The suggestion spurred Mike to expand his holiday train scene threefold. When he first started out, the set fit on a single piece of plywood, he said.

Today, with a permanent stand built just for the train layout by Mike's friend, Ray Deering, the set covers 7 plywood panels - approximately 50 linear feet, with around 225 feet of track looping through ceramic houses, past the North Pole village and in front of hand-crafted buildings that include a scale model of the Roxy Theatre. This year, the layout took nearly 30 hours to install.

Today Mike owns three train sets and six additional engines. His newest addition is a model of the Polar Express, a train based on the popular children's book and movie. People often stop just to look at the trains, he said. "It has become a real tradition with some folks," he said. "Some just think the trains are cool," he added.

For others, they bring back nostalgic memories of holidays long past.

Note: Many people have asked about the trains mentioned in this article. The original train set given to me by my grandfather was a standard Lionel set with a steam engine, tender, gondola with three milk cans, a boxcar and a caboose. I still have the whole set today, including the three milk cans! The second, bigger engine was a #773 Lionel Hudson. The set we used to run around Grandpa's Christmas tree was a Lionel "General" set, from 1957. We still have all of these trains today and they still run as well as they did when they were new. Lionel products were built to last -- as they still are today. To see Lionel's current products, visit their website at www.Lionel.com!