Walthers remains a giant in the world of model railroading
In 1899, 7-year-old Bill Walthers received his first toy train for Christmas. He became instantly smitten with the set, so much so that he got an infected blister on his thumb from long stretches of play and had to undergo a minor surgery. His parents promised him a better train if he was good for the doctor – which he was – and thus began Walthers' life-long love for trains in every shape and size.
Thirty years later, in 1932, Walthers turned his hobby into a profession and opened his first shop in his Pierce Street home. By 1937, his business, officially named Wm. K. Walthers, outgrew the space in his home, so he acquired his first office and manufacturing space in the Erie Terminal Building, 311 E. Erie St. For many years, the retail aspect of the business was called the "Terminal Hobby Shop." (Not called the Walthers Showroom).
From 1958 to 1962, the business was located to 1245 N. Water St., the current home of AJ Bombers. According to Joe Sorge, owner of AJ Bombers, the Walther team presented him with a small-scale model of his building complete with AJ Bombers' signage.
"The Walthers are regular customers," says Sorge. "This was their building. We continue to have a great relationship."
Wm. K. Walthers, Inc. made one more stop on 64th Street in Milwaukee before settling into its current home, 5601 W. Florist Ave., in 1976.
Walthers, along with Al Kalmbach, the founder of Kalmbach Publishing Company in Waukesha, were two of the founders of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), which is still very much alive today.
"They were architects of model railroad history," says Stacey Walthers Naffah, the vice president of marketing. "They are under-the-radar, unsung heroes in the city. Milwaukee is really the birthplace of model railroading."
Naffah is the only fourth generation Walthers to work for the company, and her father, J. Phillip Walthers, serves as president/CEO. In May, the company celebrated 80 years in business.
Today, Walthers is a the largest distributor, retailer and manufacturer of model railroad products in the world. Walthers has its own product lines, ranging from very the high end to beginner-friendly sets. Until the mid-90s, many of the products were manufactured on-site, but have been since sent overseas for production.
Walthers publishes the largest reference book in the industry – it's roughly 1,000 pages and sometimes referred to as the "Bible of the model railroad industry." The company is also the largest distributor in the world of model railroad merchandise.
"We have more than 300 lines of other company's products," says Naffah.
There are many different sizes of model railroads, called scales, and Walthers Showroom, the on-site retail store / hobby shop, offers the whole gamut, from Z (the smallest) to G (the largest) as well as HO, which is the most popular. Everything from track to train cars to small-scale buildings, people, scenery and vehicles are available.
The showroom, which is open to the public, also sells magazines and videos and has three layouts on display featuring trains running through miniature towns set in decades past as well as rural environments and beaches. There is an element of humor in the layouts, including modern-day "Star Wars" characters "hidden" amid other farm animals and a tree filled with flying pigs.
Walthers' line of scenery and buildings – called Cornerstone – is sold all over the world, and many of the buildings are modeled after Milwaukee businesses. Walthers also manufactures a Hiawatha model train, which in 1935, was the fastest and best the Milwaukee Road had to offer.
Naffah, who grew up in Whitefish Bay, graduated from Boston College and Northwestern University. She lived for many years in Chicago, where she got married, had two children and worked in publishing. A few years ago, after experiencing her son's love for trains first-hand, she decided to return to the family business and moved back to Milwaukee.
One of her missions is to involve moms more in the world of trains, since many spend so much time shopping for their kids and trying to balance their time between activities.
"There are a lot of train-crazy kids out there, and we need to start talking to moms more," says Naffah.
Although model trains are not as popular today as they were in the '50s, when the Lionel Company was not just the biggest model train company but also the largest toy company in the world, they continue to appeal to many adults and children alike. The popularity of "Thomas the Tank" has certainly helped the industry in the past decade.
Milwaukee remains a hotbed of model train activity, with Trainfest – which runs Nov. 10-11 – welcoming upwards to 20,000 visitors every year. Part of the ongoing interest is due to the backlash of technology. Many parents want hands-on activities that are away from screens and they rediscover model railroading as a fun hobby for the whole family.
"Trains are inherently interesting to most people," says Naffah.
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