Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Passing of Another Great Train Maker

On April 14th, Mr. Dick Mayer passed away.  This is important for a number of reasons.  Not just because the  guy was a decent human being, he had a family and spent his life earning an honest living.

The guy was part of the great train society that happened after WW II.  It was for tinplate enthusiasts that wanted something more than what Lionel had produced prior to the war.  The Bob McCoy's, the Jim Cohen's, the John Davanzo of Pride Lines.  And now Dick Mayer.  All of these people had one thing in common: a can do attitude and a will to see something into reality that wasn't already there.

That's pretty damn impressive stuff.  Nowadays (and I am guilty of this), if I don't get my updates and tracking information on the web on my new/latest gadget from whatever online or big box store I have a hissy fit.  We've been made into a land of people that can't build anymore.  We just hope that someone out there will take our money and whine and moan when the quality isn't up to snuff.  And it almost never is.  I can tell you stories about trains, gadgets and furniture that falls apart after it leaves the box.


I can tell you for a fact that guys like Dick Mayer could care less about any of that.

My introduction to Dick was that I was very new to collecting tinplate trains and a friend of mine that was helping get around in the TCA suggested I give him a call.  I ordered an Ives 3243 from him.  I waited about 2 years....  And after I found the cancelled check, I got irate.  I called Dick and asked him what the hell was going on?

That's when Dick talked me down and explained the realities of limited production.  Quality takes time. Good machining takes time.  "I don't make things that people sell at swap meets, my stuff doesn't change hands very often" he told me.  He was right.  His Ives production was as good or better than Ives.  And everything I bought from him was as good or better than anything else I'd ever had or seen.  I also had the pleasure of becoming friends with his co-worker, Butch.  Butch is a character and he is a storehouse of toy train knowledge and honest to goodness experience.

I bought pretty much anything else he would sell me.  McKeen cars, Toonerville stuff.  I really wanted one of his Black Diamond sets, it's just that he really couldn't make them anymore, they were literally all spoken for for almost a half a decade!

So I went in kicking and screaming to Dick and he made me into a lifelong customer and wide eyed kid.  The stuff he made is still a marvel.  He was an expert in lots of different aspects of toy trains.  However I never detected him as a die hard toy train person.  Jim Cohen was die hard, he had many layouts and many unique experiences with rare trains and even extensive time with Louis Hertz in the Ives Factory.  Dick wasn't that involved in that aspect of the lore and history of toy trains.  I never heard or saw him build a layout (his place in Escondido was too small).  But the guy had parts.  And connections (more on that in a minute)...

I've always found it kind of fascinating: the differences between toy train makers on the West Coast and East Coast.  Their experiences were very different growing up and absorbing the trains and then eventually getting into collecting and operating.  I'll leave it up to Arno Baars to detail some of this stuff in his book but suffice it to say, they all approached the problem of how to get more and better trains and parts the same way and differently.  Yep, I know that sounds crazy, but it isn't.

These guys were all interconnected.   Every time I mentioned something new and interesting to Jim Cohen about Dick Mayer, he had said that he spoke to him about this or that some time ago.  Whenever I spoke to Dick about something I needed for a McCoy motor, he would tell me how wonderful Bob and Margaret were.  They all knew each other!  Even on different coasts.  And they swapped parts and stories and ran up phone bills before there was a flat price for long distance and phone service.

Dick was part of a larger community.  One that supported and actually became an ecosystem.  It's why a guy like him is such a big loss.  All of these people created great things.  The things still exist but the knowledge and experience don't necessarily follow the items.  And in Dick's case as in the case of the people I had previously mentioned, he was an artist.

I can tell you that several people have his trains you may or may not believe.  They are just that good.  When you see Dick's McKeen, you really do think of the age of streamlining and a unique industrial design.  The colors are bright and probably not what Lionel or Flyer could have or would have used.  His Toonerville Trolley has a very unique movement to it and moves flawlessly both in O Gauge and in Standard Gauge.  And his Bi-Polars are huge, varied and just monsters!

I won't go much further other than to say that we've lost someone I think is important.  Not just because he had the guts to rely on his own two hands to feed himself and his family (although that does gain my instant respect).  It's because he saw something that wasn't there and built it.  And it is art.

Good luck Dick, you will be remembered for your art as much as your personality.  Your legacy will endure.



Anonymous said...

This is the most I've ever seen written about the man, not the business, that was Mr Dick Mayer. Thank you for sharing.
If you track back issues of Model Railroader you'll see that it trended articles originally about scratch-built models then about craftsman kits, kitbashed articles, shake-the-box kits, mass-produced factory assembled to built-up craftsman models. Our hobby got easier to enter but we lost something special along the way. Guys like Dick Mayer virtually defined independence in spite of industry changes and tastes.
My condolences to the Mayer family and Dick Mayer's many friends.
Brian O.

scd1950 said...

Makes one wonder if anyone will pick up the torch and carry on. I have two Cohen products and a Pride Lines trolley---all three top notch and a joy to run. In fact my blog picture is a Cohen Ives Electric 4-4-4 Std. A great running engine