Model trains passion began with surprise Christmas present for Ozark man

Jim Rudd has only collected model trains for the past 15 years, but the Ozark man is the first to say what started as an interest when he received his first train as a surprise Christmas present from his wife has today grown into a passion.

With some 54 sets of electric trains running on a labyrinth of tracks spiraling throughout the 3,200-square foot ‘Train Depot’ he custom built behind his Ozark home two years ago, Rudd stands with his trademark unlit cigar in hand surveying the scene that he directs.

He points to a child-sized table against one wall with a single train on a 6-foot oblong track. “It all started with that little train over there. That was the first train,” he said. “And the first track.”

Now 2-year old grandson Watson is the director of that station, Rudd said. “When he comes to visit, the first thing he wants to do is come to The Depot so I take him to the garage to get a cart and we ride together down here.”

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“Watson goes around to each display getting what he needs for his track,” his grandfather said. “It’s a very hands-on hobby, a lost art.”

Rudd’s wife of 57 years, Ann, is the person he credits for starting his train collection. “One Christmas Ann had a bunch of coupons she had saved so with those coupons and a few dollars, she bought me a train for Christmas.

“It was just a surprise,” Rudd said, because he had no particular interest in trains at the time. In fact, the retired furniture store owner had wanted to be an airline pilot after graduating from Auburn University with a degree in engineering and an Army Commission in the Artillery Corps as a second lieutenant. In Vietnam, Rudd flew the Caribou, a fixed wing aircraft used in tactical transport.

After his military service, Rudd returned to Ozark with his young family to prepare for a move to Atlanta and a career with Pan American Airlines. His father, O.W. Rudd, had other plans.

The senior Rudd had opened a small furniture store on the square in Ozark in 1945. He wanted his son to work with him in the family business, “at least until my sister graduated from college,” Rudd said.

The father and son eventually came to an agreement that the younger Rudd, who had worked in the store as a youth, would work in the family business for a short stint—that totaled more than 50 years, including a Dothan store. Rudd’s son Jason joined the family business in 1991.

The Rudds have five children: Jason and his twin, Justin; Heidi Rudd Snell; Hildy Rudd Conder; and Lily Rudd Adams. They are the grandparents of 12.

None of his children share his passion for trains. Yes, they think he is crazy he said, laughing out loud. “I didn’t like to hunt, I didn’t like to fish. This is just my hobby for relaxing.”

The first train and tracks were set up in the house. As the collection grew, the train was set up to run around the Christmas tree. As the collection grew, the train was set up in the garage. “Then Ann wanted the garage back, so The Depot was built,” Rudd said.

Friends and family have gifted him with the vintage village buildings that add authenticity to the train track scenes. His artist wife has painted scenic backdrops that enhance each landscape.

A good deal of his collection has come from the Dothan train show. “I would buy three or four trains and would try to sneak them into the house,” Rudd said. “A lot of times I’d get caught.” His wife added, “He thought I wouldn’t see them if he hid them in his truck.”

Rudd doesn’t belong to a train collector club, but he was a key player in the Ozark Railroad Association, which was formed by some citizens of Ozark in 2016 in an effort to preserve the old train depot behind Broad Street in Ozark that was built in the 1890s.

“It was something that we felt like, as members of the Ozark Railroad Association, was needed in our city to preserve our heritage,” he said.

CSX, the company that owned the train station at the time, had offered to sell the building to the association for $500,000. A GoFundMe page was started to help raise the necessary funds to buy the train depot and relocate it to city property where it could be restored and converted to a museum.

CSX donated the old depot to the city of Ozark with the stipulation that it be moved off CSX land and onto city property. Although the association likely could get the brick building moved and restored, CSX required a liability insurance contract that was exorbitant as well as other contingencies.

The effort reinforced Rudd’s commitment to the disappearing railroad community. “Railroads are kind of a lost art,” he said. “This is history.”

Rudd said future plans for his collection include building multi-level plywood platforms over the lower level of tracks in The Depot.

“When I run out of space, I’m not going to build another barn, I’m going to build up,” he said, adding that he has no plans to add to his train collection. “But if I happen to see a train I like, I am going to buy it.”

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