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Sept. 2014 Vol 27 Issue 6

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Mice walk tall amid O gauge trains at Squeekville

The McWilliams family has been building its layout since 1936

By Roger Carp

Photos by Brian McWilliams

Who would you elevate into the pantheon of 20th-century American pop culture? Elvis Presley and John Wayne stand out. So do Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Among fictitious icons, Superman and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Bart Simpson come to mind, as do the “Little Tramp” created by Charlie Chaplin and the hard-boiled tough guy brought to life in motion pictures by Humphrey Bogart.

But towering over them all may be the shortest character on our list. Mickey Mouse, the animated creation of Walt Disney, is known throughout the planet. He has been touching kids and adults since the 1920s, thanks to cartoons and comic strips, amusement parks, and a host of consumer items, including toy trains.

No matter how familiar model railroaders may be with the connection between Mickey Mouse  and Lionel trains in the 1930s, only one hobbyist has to my knowledge developed a three-rail wonderland honoring the connection between mice and toy trains. Actually, four generations of the McWilliams family deserve credit for Squeekville, a fantasy carnival in which an entire community of tiny mice drive trains, star in carnival games and rides, and populate a fanciful world that’s been entertaining folks since 1936.

Let the show begin!

Brian McWilliams, who ably serves as mayor, chief engineer, and resident historian of Squeekville, talks about the central role his father played in creating the miniature wonderland populated by skinny, black-and-white mice. Almost as quickly, Brian mentions how a third generation, in the form of his son, Michael, has also made significant contributions. And now, still younger members of the clan – grandsons Patrick and Declan – are learning how to run trains and tend to the little mice!

The tale (or should it be “tail”?) of the mice opened in the mid-1930s, a year or so after Lionel introduced a handcar featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. A clockwork motor powered the inexpensive plaything around a circle of three-rail track. Soon thereafter, because of the incredibly positive response from kids and grown-ups to this low-end model, Lionel developed an electric train with Mickey at the throttle. Circus-oriented cars and accessories were packed with it.

Absolutely delighted by the latest entries from the Lionel catalog as well as the profusion of animated cartoons, Brian’s dad envisioned what today we would call a “theme park.” Charles McWilliams dreamed of an O gauge paradise in which tinplate trains were the stars, but handmade mouse figures and animated carnival rides played supporting roles. Many of the ideas on attractions and animation that he incorporated into the layout resulted from visits to the real-world amusement park called Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Charles, employed as an electrician at one of the huge plants maintained by the Westinghouse Electric Co., bought a mid-level O gauge passenger outfit and arranged the track under the family’s Christmas tree.  Then, using an array of creative modeling skills, he started making miniature houses and rudimentary animated carnival rides, all to entertain his seven children, the youngest of whom was Brian.

Of course, the structures and attractions looked incomplete without figures to populate the layout. But, instead of making tiny men, women and children, Charles decided to go with mouse figures instead. He started with just 10 mice, patterned after the early cartoon character Steamboat Willie and, of course, bearing a resemblance to Mickey, too. Each figure was unique, constructed of wood and wire and meticulously hand-painted.

Year after year as Brian grew up, his father enhanced the unique display. That involved envisioning and fabricating additional structures and carnival attractions, along with many more mice. (Over the years the population has grown to about 380!) The family’s roster of Lionel trains, depending primarily on the vintage no. 259E steam locomotive and tender, also increased. Prewar tinplate passenger coaches served beautifully to carry mice from place to place.

The notion of a miniature world revolving around O gauge engines and rolling stock so enchanted Brian that he insisted on developing one of his own. True, he continued to assist his dad and revel in all the fun associated with the Christmas layout. But the time was right for Brian to have his own personal railroad.

During the 1950s, therefore, the youngest son who became the most enthusiastic modeler launched what would become a 4 x 16-foot three-rail empire. In addition to Charles’ collection, Brian relied on his own Lionel pieces as well as various kits from the Plasticville U.S.A. line and what he also made by hand.

“I loved my layout,” Brian comments, “but nothing compared to Dad’s. Everything on it was electrically operated.  He wired it so each attraction would come to life at fixed intervals during a 5-minute cycle. And, by adapting a 1927 Westinghouse rotary traffic light controller, he designed a rotating drum electrical switch system that caused the different carnival rides and the trains themselves to be activated in sequence during each ‘performance.’

“As a result, no switches had to be flipped to stop or start a particular ride or action,” Brian adds. “The rotating drum switch wasn’t located in the same room, which meant you never even saw it. In the ‘pre-

electronic’ age when I grew up that arrangement seemed novel. It thrilled all of us every Christmas, year after year.”

Which was the reason Brian hardly objected when this magical exhibit of trains and mice passed to him in 1960. At last he could put to use the information and tips his father had shared, in conjunction with the “tinkering” skills he had been refining, to enlarge and improve what by this point everybody lovingly called Squeekville.

The fantasy carnival has constantly grown and been modified over the years. The hand-built, animated attractions now include a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, dancing mice, shooting gallery with moving targets, a moving hot-air balloon ride, a cable car, rotating chair swings, and a lot more. New ideas are always being evaluated, and prototypes tweaked.

A mouse’s-eye view

Ever since Brian was handed the reins and permitted to shape life and train operations in Squeekville, he has been modifying the layout. To understand what it looks like today and what he and his son and grandsons have been doing, we should take a good look at the display. Let’s imagine we’re about to get a mouse’s-eye view!

What we’ll see unfolding in front of us is a 5 x 9-foot world of color, motion and whimsy. Comprised of four detachable sections, when not in use the entire layout can be hoisted to the rafters of Brian’s garage using a power cable system.  When lowered for use and the removable legs are attached, you discover that it stands barely more than a couple of feet off the ground. The minimal height is deliberate. As Brian says, “Little ones can see it better, and Squeekville has always been meant to amuse children.”

Brian hastily adds that, for a display like this to meet the needs of kids, it had better be sturdy. After all, boys and girls can get pretty excited when they catch a glimpse of the train barreling toward them with mice crowding the line.

Therefore, the CEO of Squeekville put in extra hours reinforcing the foundation so youngsters can’t inflict any damage even if they press down on the edge of the layout. The framework he upgraded now consists of aluminum brackets and sheets of plywood undergirding the little land where mice roar.

Another improvement Brian engineered entailed removing the ancient tubular straights and curves and replacing them with MTH RealTrax screwed into place. The widest radius on the layout measures out to 54 inches. A Lionel no. 1033 transformer from postwar days handles the trains and the handful of accessories.

What everyone loves

Charles never claimed that his O gauge railroad would dazzle those viewers expecting to see the finest top-of-the-line equipment. Similarly, advocates of realistic scenery and detailed, scale structures were not the audience he wanted to reach. The goal of his layout was to make kids laugh. Brian still subscribes to his father’s philosophy.

What every visitor to the McWilliams homestead loves is the variety of amusement park rides and attractions being operated and enjoyed by mice! The more than 380 figures have been crafted by hand, using wood dowels and 12-gauge copper wire. Then Brian paints them the way his dad did.

The mice – adult and young – do everything human beings do when they spend a day at a carnival or theme park. They impatiently wait in line at the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, grasping tickets and pushing to board the ride.

Elsewhere in Squeekville, mice board a cable car to travel short distances, or they go for a boat ride on the lake. And, at the end of the show, they gape in wonder as all the other action stops and a brave figural diver plunges from a sky-high diving platform into an actual pool of water.

The three-inch mice share tastes similar to those of their human counterparts. If Brian’s citizens could speak, they would assure you that nothing beats an ice-cream cone or a cheeseburger on a warm summer evening.

When the day has come to an end and the smallest mice are exhausted and begging to go home, Mom and Dad escort their offspring to the nearest station to board the vintage passenger train. Patrick and Declan have as much pleasure operating their grandad’s treasure as Brian did when his father let him run it.

Constant improvements

Needless to say, a model railroad whose animation seldom ceases requires ongoing maintenance. Plus, Brian gets immense pleasure from troubleshooting the animated features and conceiving of new ones. As a result, Squeekville strikes observers as endlessly changing and always in motion. Mice don’t stand still!

To start, Brian describes any brand-new attractions on the layout. To kids who stop by he describes features like the circling rocket swing, the cable cars and the balloon ride. To other visitors he points out the new animated boating lake and the tightrope walker.

Besides spending hours at his workbench forming lots of new figures and teaching Patrick and Declan his many tips and secrets, Brian does plenty of electrical work. His father would be proud of his talents as he tends to the nearly 40 AC and DC motors, along with the 25 small power sources and 450 lights on the layout. Also, Squeekville boasts a block system using plastic wire connectors from Powerwerx.

Brian also checks the lighted stars on the black felt backdrop, and the full moon where two Astromice have landed looking for blue cheese! Elsewhere, enlarged color photos of landscapes suggest the environs, with painted pinecones creatively repurposed as trees.

A proud heritage

It’s pretty cool how mice, usually seen as nothing but pests, have risen thanks to Squeekville and the McWilliams family to become sources of laughter and sympathy. Squeekville stands as a delightful and fanciful world in which miniature trains and mice blend charmingly to entertain folks of all ages.

Besides showing off Squeekville to visitors at his home in Powell, Tenn., Brian displays and operates the layout at trainshows, where it’s been a real show-stopper and kid magnet. At one such event, the NMRA convention in Atlanta last July, Squeekville earned a 2nd Place Award in the modular category.

Good as the Lionel models are, what makes this O gauge layout truly special are the creativity and craftsmanship required to build from scratch the numerous animated features and the population of happy, contented mice. This is the legacy of the patriarchs of the clan, who have guided the evolution of Squeekville for almost 80 years.

Now Brian can look ahead with pride at the passion his son and grandsons feel for this unique three-rail display. The mice will continue to multiply and the attractions increase as new generations take over and keep building the tradition of Squeekville.

You can learn more about Brian McWilliams and the marvelous display his family has been developing since 1936, plus see several vintage pictures and videos of mice and trains in action by going to his website: www.squeekville.com

 

Photo captions

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Squeekville, the delightful O gauge display populated by 380 mouse figures, has been celebrating the world of toy trains since 1936. Four generations of the McWilliams family have been its “caretakers.”

 

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Brian McWilliams and his two grandsons, Patrick and Declan, have a great time taking Squeekville out of his garage and exhibiting it at toy train conventions. Note the handmade rotating drum switch which controls the action.

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The mouse at the throttle of the prewar streamlined steamer Brian repainted bears down on the two scrawny fellows pumping the handcar just as fast as they can.

 

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Creating unique rolling stock for the mice to operate has been a tradition among the McWilliams clan since Charles masterminded the first version of Squeekville.

Fast food in Squeekville means endless varieties of cheese. Isn’t that what any hungry mouse would desire?  Every figure is unique and handcrafted out of wood and wire.

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A freight train disappears into a tunnel with a mouse checking out the scenery.

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The boy beaming with joy is Brian McWilliams, shown with the display in 1953.

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An HO scale version of Thomas the Tank Engine travels on an inner loop around Squeekville. In the distance are a few of the amusement park attractions handcrafted by Brian – the swing chair ride was fashioned from an old umbrella.

There’s a lot to see at Squeekville!