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New museum to feature model railroad and vintage toys

Lakewood Ranch's Richard Pierson expects to open Sarasota Toy Museum and Moosehead Toys and Comics, with space dedicated to an HO scale model train layout, in July.

The model train layout that is headed to 17th Street in Sarasota previously was displayed in Vermont.
The model train layout that is headed to 17th Street in Sarasota previously was displayed in Vermont.
Photo by Jay Heater
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With respect to Johnny Cash, "I hear the train a-comin.'"

It's going to be rolling around the bend on 17th Street in Sarasota as early as July.

That's when Lakewood Ranch's Richard Pierson expects to open his Sarasota Toy Museum.

A large space in the museum will be dedicated to a professionally built (by David Frary) HO scale layout modeled after the ski area in Killington, Vermont, that has been set up and maintained by the Sarasota Bay Model Railroad Society. The layout has sections that go from winter to spring to summer to fall.

The layout was featured in Model Railroader Scenery Magazine.

"This is a world-class layout," said Lakewood Ranch's George Borsari, the founder of the Sarasota Bay Model Railroad Society. "Just look at it. It has 28,000 handmade trees, a staggering number.

"This was built to be a museum layout. it was designed for people to watch the trains run."

Pierson struck a deal with the members of the Sarasota Bay Model Railroad Society because he wanted the train layout in his new museum to be something more.

"Our members like to run the trains, so we designed it so people can come here and run them, not just watch them," Borsari said.

Richard Pierson
Photo by Jay Heater

Pierson's idea for starting the Sarasota Toy Museum came during an antiquing trip to Quechee, Vermont, the site of the Vermont Antique Mall.

It was there he met Gary Neil, who had been curating a toy exhibit for more than 40 years and whose finds were on display at the antique mall.

Neil told Pierson that he wanted to retire and was looking for someone who would not only buy the toys but also keep them to be displayed in a museum. Pierson told him of his desire to start the Sarasota Toy Museum, and they struck a deal.

Pierson loaded two 53-foot tractor trailers with the toys and headed to a Sarasota storage facility. The trains and the associated landscape materials were loaded up last because Pierson had decided not to take them, simply because they had more bulk than he thought he could handle.

His wife, Mary Pierson, objected. She said it didn't make sense not to take the trains because they were amazing artwork and would be a hit in the museum.

Eventually, he loaded up the trains, too.

The Sarasota Bay Model Railroad Society was recruited to rebuild the layout previously shown in Quechee, Vermont.
Photo by Jay Heater

It also became an important part of the deal that Pierson has an autistic son, 20-year-old Jacob.

"When I started talking to Gary, I told him I had an adult autistic son, and he said, 'I do, too.'"

Pierson said the toy store and museum were projects that Jacob would enjoy. "He loves trains, and he loves toys," Pierson said.

When the Sarasota Toy Museum opens, it will be open for free to children and adults with disabilities.

Pierson found a 6,000 square-foot building for rent on 17th Street just off the corner of Beneva Road. He decided to dedicate 4,000 square feet to the museum while the front 2,000 feet would be another of his businesses, Moosehead Toys and Comics.

He put all the toys from Vermont in storage and then spent time looking at the train layout, which was in more than 50 pieces, not including all the boxes that contained various landscape pieces and train accessories.

"I was just looking at the mass of what I had," he said. "I had people I knew take it apart, but I didn't have anyone to put it together. So me not knowing anything about trains, I went looking for train clubs."

He found Ellenton's Dave Fontaine, who is on the board of directors of the Sarasota Bay Model Railroad Society. Fontaine, who is 64, built his first model train layout when he was 15 years old and has pursued the hobby his entire life.

Pierson admitted looking upon the pile of model trains and parts in storage and thinking he never would see it all put together like it was when he bought it in Vermont.

"We were looking at it thinking, 'This is going to be a challenge,'" Pierson said.

But then Fontaine and Pierson went to work.

All the trains on display at the Sarasota Toy Museum are HO Scale.
Photo by Jay Heater

While Pierson has workers ready to build all the display cabinets once he gets further along in the permitting process, the model railroad layout is mostly finished.

Besides piecing everything together, Fontaine has changed the display from one that was coin-operated — allowing patrons to put coins into a slot to move select trains around — to a "DCC" or digital command control system, which allows the layout, sounds, trains and accessories to be controlled by a computer.

Pierson said eventually his patrons at the museum will be able to control the layout through their cellphones.

"It was a big step," said Borsari, who said gone are the days when "blocks" of the layout were controlled by switches that were mounted on the board.

"It is not a matter of running a train around a Christmas tree anymore," Borsari said.

Sarasota Toy Museum owner Richard Pierson says he will display toys from as early as the 1800s.
Photo by Jay Heater

The Sarasota Toy Museum and Moosehead Toys and Comics will be staffed by Pierson and his two sons, Jacob and Richard Jr., who is 34.

Pierson, who made a living in the fashion industry working for Tommy Hilfiger and Guess Jeans before retiring, said while the model railroad component is an entertaining feature of the museum, he has plenty of antique toys to round out his museum.

"I've got cap guns from back in the 1800s," he said. "I've got hundreds of vintage lunch boxes, a large collection of tin toys from the turn of the century (and early 1900s), Barbies, Star Wars collections, red line Hot Wheels and early battery-operated toys."

Pierson said he never had many toys himself when growing up because he was a kid at a time when many children played outside and used whatever was available, such as sticks, as toys.

He would like his patrons to experience "the wow factor" when they come into the museum, thinking about the toys they had in their childhood.


Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.