Friday, January 15, 2016

Don Beem: The Train Guy

by Larry Miller

For generations, youngsters the world over – and lots of adults, too – have been mesmerized by railroad trains.  From mimicking the “choo-choo” sound of old steam engines to playing with model trains of all types and sizes.

And for one 1962 Chadron State College graduate, the fascination and love of trains blossomed into a lifetime of collecting and sharing his passion for model trains.

An "American Flyer" engine and coal car
Don Beem was born in tiny Climbing Hill, Iowa, but his parents moved to Edgemont, South Dakota at the end of World War II to run the Coast-to-Coast store.   Don was just six years old.  It was there that he and his older brother, Lee, grew up.   

When he was a junior in high school, Don’s mom and dad bought him an American Flyer model train. 

Dad sold model trains in his store at Christmas time.  After the holidays, any that were left he could get for half price.”

Bitten by the railroading bug, Don built a train layout in the basement of their house, and that started his lifelong involvement in a hobby that has led him to be known as “the Train Guy” by many of the people in and around Silver City, New Mexico, where he and his wife have lived for nearly 50 years.  In that time, he amassed a collection of some 40 model engines and more than 400 rail cars, and was frequently invited to present railroad programs to a variety of organizations across the region.

Don Beem aboard one of his riding trains in New Mexico

I grew up in Edgemont, which was – and still is – a railroad town” Beem noted, adding that “20 trains a day – about a hundred cars each – pass through the little community every day, hauling coal out of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.”

After graduating from Edgemont High in 1958, Don enrolled Chadron State College.

It was an easy choice.  My brother, Lee, was already enrolled at Chadron – plus it was just 60 miles away, much closer than Spearfish.  And it was cheaper, even paying out-of-state tuition.”

At CSC, his model train hobby got “put on hold.”  While his high school prowess in basketball and track weren’t pursued in college, Beem recalls that he did “play clarinet in the Eagle marching band for Harry Holmberg.”  One year, he served as student coordinator of the school’s intramural sports program. 

In May of 1961 – at the end of his junior year – Beem married his hometown sweetheart, Lawana Weckwerth..

After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1962, Don and Lawana followed her folks to Lordsburg, New Mexico, to help them set up a hardware store.  It would give Don a chance to put to good use his college major:  business administration. 

I worked there for a year and discovered that the business was a one-family store, so I found a job in Las Cruces working for an office supply company as an outside salesman."

Don Beem holds one of more than 40
engines in his extensive train collection
Part of his territory included Silver City, nestled in southwest New Mexico along the eastern slope of the continental divide.  A few years later, when Beem learned that an office supply store in Silver City was for sale, he alerted the owners of his company, and in 1968 they bought it and sent Don there to manage it.   

The next year, Beems bought a house on 29th Street in Silver City, and Don’s growing model railroad collection found a new home when he dug a basement under the house to accommodate it.

Among his early special items was a “Mogul” engine, modeled after an old wood-burning steam engine that used a “2-6-0” wheel configuration. It was one that had very special meaning for Beem.

During his first years in Silver City, Don was immersed not only in operating a business, Western Stationers, but in helping Lawana raise their two sons and daughter – and becoming involved in the community.  He was an officer in Kiwanis and the Grant County Cancer Society, and he was also involved with the Downtown Business Association.  The Beems became members of the Methodist Church.
 
In 1974, Beem and his wife bought Western Stationers.  They were able to expand and strengthen the business. It was no longer just an office supply store, it also became a craft and hobby store, and they added Hallmark cards.  Business was good.

Old Santa Fe RR depot in Silver City
Like their hometown of Edgemont, South Dakota, railroading had been a part of the Silver City landscape for a long time.  The Silver City, Deming & Pacific Railroad was established in 1883, when the narrow gauge line was used to haul copper from area mines.  It wasn’t long before the line was bought by the Santa Fe Railroad and converted to a standard gauge railroad.

The original depot was in the northern part of town and by 1900 was moved to south Silver City.  A new depot was constructed in 1915, and it served the area for more than half a century.  But by 1975 – a year after Don Beem bought Western Stationers – passenger service was long gone and the depot was demolished.  While a few area folks made the trek to a hearing in Lubbock, Texas in an effort to preserve the building, it was for naught.

In those years, the community wasn’t very aware of just how important these historic buildings were,” Beem observed, quickly adding that the event was a catalyst for creating more interest in local history.  The Silver City Museum became more active, too.

As owner of his own business, Don chose to add his own “railroad touch” by installing a display of model trains running through miniature landscapes within a downtown building he owned.  The setup surely fascinated visitors and it became something of an attraction for Silver City.  Especially for kids --- of all ages!

When the city started a Main Street revitalization project in the 1980s, they asked if it would be possible for Don to set up a train to carry kids whenever the community had major events – about four or five times a year.

A Don Beem riding train 
I set up a track in my parking lot and bought a switch engine and riding cars.  We had a lot of riders and needed a bigger engine to handle the load,” said Beem.

He bought a GP40 (General Purpose) engine, which operated for more than 10 years.  Don would dress in a Conductor's uniform, much to the delight of youngsters.

As recently as last summer, Don Beem was on the job giving youngsters rides during Fourth of July festivities in Silver City.  But over the years his rolling stock also found its way to places like Show Low, Arizona, and Gila, New Mexico, among others, for annual special events.

In 2000, the Beems moved to an acreage on the north side of Silver City.  After he retired in 2008, he built a shop and moved his equipment into it and started construction of a small track layout in his two-car garage.   It enabled him to run three trains simultaneously.  We've assembled a small collection of  Don Beem model railroad photos in this Beem Gallery.

Beem poses with one of his favorites:  the Mogul steam engine 
We were going to put train track down below the house for the big trains and started work on it – but I was running out of steam.”

Winding down a bit, Don sold his switch engine and the GP40, as well as some riding cars.  Much of his extensive train collection has gone on permanent loan to the Train Museum in the old depot at nearby Hurley, New Mexico.

But I’m going to keep the “Mogul” engine, because when I went through high school in Edgemont, we were known as the Edgemont Moguls.”

It would seem there’s still a little steam left in Don Beem, "The Train Guy."


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