South Carolina’s model for fans of model trains

The Model Trains Station in South Carolina’s Upstate is regarded as one of the best in the Southeast. What makes it so?

Author’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

If one was to kneel down at just the correct height and vantage point, you could soon forget you were standing in an old cotton mill in South Carolina’s Upstate. Instead, you’d hear, then see, the steam locomotive as it emerged from the mountain tunnel, its metal wheels chugging along the tracks, the engine’s massive smokebox looming larger and larger as it hurtled toward you.

The trains at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Video by Michael Banks)

That act of space and time travel is one of the main attractions of what’s billed as the best multi-scale interactive train display in the Southeast. With the simple push of a button, electric current, creativity and century’s old toymaking, visitors to the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., are transported to a simpler time. 

Scott Doelling, of Greenville, S.C., who is a customer of Laurens Electric Cooperative, first started playing with trains as a 7-year-old. One of his old trains is featured in a layout at the station and he volunteers two to three days a week.

It’s a hobby that you never really outgrow.

Scott Doelling, volunteer at Model Trains Station
Volunteers are shown working on one of the displays at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., in this May 2021 photo. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“It’s a hobby that you never really outgrow,” said Doelling, who spent 31 years in the corrugated paper business and specializes in creating scenery, such as the mountains and forests lining the tracks. “Your imagination can go wild. You can do anything.”

There are hidden gems among the many layouts and visitors are encouraged to take part in a scavenger hunt. Look closely and you’ll see a group of Boy Scouts around a campfire. Look closer and you’ll see a bear attack right around the bend.

There are push buttons that control different parts of a layout. Children can not only control some of the trains that run on the tracks, but also give power to a saw mill or take delight when a conductor steps out from his station.

Model trains are constantly running at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Video by Michael Banks)

“We try to put us much interaction for the kids as we can,” said Doelling, who is one of about 20 volunteers.

There are plenty of vintage trains, including some from the 1920s, that still run along the tracks. But there are plenty of advancements, including digital programs that now allow you to control the train from your mobile phone. There is a train repair shop where people can bring in a faulty engine and the group also allows visitors to bring a train from home and run on the tracks.

Bob Rayle is chairman of the board of directors for the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

The trains and the nine massive displays spread out over 16,000 square feet of space at the historic Taylors Mill mean different things to different people, said Bob Rayle, chairman of the station’s board of directors. Rayle, who still owns the first train set he got when he was 6 years old, said the station is more than just about model trains.

It’s the little things and the detail. They make the picture, they tell the story.

Bob Rayle, chairman of board of directors for Model Trains Station
Some of the displays at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photos by Michael Banks)

“It’s the little things and the detail. They make the picture, they tell the story.”

Rayle points to the wooden bench where Erna Liebrandt likes to come and sit and watch the trains run on a 600-square-foot display modeled after the town of Schonweiler in southern Germany near the Austrian border. Erna and her husband, Gunnar, were born in Germany and she donated her husband’s prized display after his death. The volunteers at the station helped to build and triple its size, adding a church, mountain backdrop and tunnel for the trains to pass through.

“She just sits there and looks at that German city,” Rayle said, “and what she sees… is her husband. And she’ll sit there and cry.”

Nearly all of the items at the station, which opened in December 2017, have been donated, Rayle said. He tells of another lady who brings her grandchildren at Christmas and they watch Grandpa’s trains run. For years, the tracks he’d built had sat silent under blankets in his double-car garage. Now, they bring enjoyment to others.

Bob Rayle assists a visitor at the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C., during a May 2021 visit. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Brittany Kujawa, of Simpsonville, S.C., spent a summer day visiting with her three children, ages 7, 5 and 2, as part of a home school group. She said they were shocked when they walked in and saw so many trains and so many sets.

“My kids love trains,” Kujawa said. “The staff here is so involved with the kids and I like the freedom they let them have. I was nervous coming here, ‘Model trains, you can’t touch them.’ But they’ve done such a great job of making them available for the kids to interact with, as well as giving them a place they can run off energy. One of the staff said, ‘They can go wild here.’ And that’s really appealing to a home school mom. There’s something for everyone.”


One of the displays that fill the Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Get There

The Model Trains Station is located at Taylors Mill, 250 Mill St., Suite BL 1250, in Taylors, S.C.

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday: 1 to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults: $8; seniors and military: $7; children (age 2 to 12): $5; children under 2: free. Special rates available for groups and birthday parties are welcomed.

Details: They are always looking for donations and volunteers. For more information, visit www.modeltrainsstation.com , email modeltrainsstation@gmail.com or call (864) 605-7979.

Visitors are shown at the front entrance to Model Trains Station in Taylors, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Sharing the story

Read of one woman’s push to chart a path for those wishing to discover their heritage in South Carolina.

As a child, Dawn Dawson-House learned plenty about this country’s founding fathers. Missing were the exploits of South Carolina civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Delaine and Robert Smalls, a former slave who represented the Palmetto State for five terms in Congress. 

Those lessons were learned at the family dinner table as well as at church and other social gatherings around her hometown along the coast.

“The community of Beaufort won’t let you forget that African-American history is important,” Dawson-House said. “Our teachers, our families, our festivals and events, you were surrounded by African-American heritage. I found it interesting because it spoke to us.”

Since January 2021, Dawson-House has been the executive director of the WeGOJA Foundation. Pronounced we-GO-juh, the name is a fusion of three languages spoken by people of African descent who were brought to America as slaves.

WeGOJA works to document and promote African-American heritage sites in South Carolina. That work is done through historical markers, listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Green Book of South Carolina. Teacher guides are provided for classrooms and there are plans to provide toolkits for the large number of African-American families who gather here each year for reunions.

Dawson-House, who spent nearly 25 years in public relations for the SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, believes there’s no time like the present to embrace the stories of our past.

“The more we can share the story, the more we can build interest into advocacy, into action, we can start creating our authentic story better,” she said. “It’s not just for tourism, but for the public’s full understanding of our history and our full story so it’s easier to make wiser choices when we talk about public decisions.”


Getting to know Dawn Dawson-House

Claim to fame: She recently accepted the job of executive director at the WeGOJA Foundation after a long career in communications with South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Alma mater: Graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1985 with a degree in journalism. “I thought I was going to be the next Oprah Winfrey, but got out into the real world and realized I couldn’t pay rent.”

Favorite state park: Landsford Canal State Park in Catawba with its “gentle tumble” whitewater and colorful rocky shoals spider lilies. “It’s a beautiful sight.”

Time to unwind: When she’s not enjoying Mexican food, you can often find Dawson-House on her treadmill. She and her husband of 25 years, William House, an investigator with the S.C. Attorney General’s office, are planning a train trip through the Canadian wilderness.

Editor’s Note: A version of this SC Stories profile was featured in the July 2021 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine that is distributed 11 times a year to more than 1 million South Carolinians by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.