They say there’s nothing like a boy and his toys, even if the “boy” is a retired neurologist.
Dr. Charles Kaufman’s toys are electric trains, which he has loved since he was a young child.
“In the early ’50s, toy trains were the rage, like Nintendos were when my children were growing up and Xboxes are today,” Kaufman said. “Everybody collected model trains.”
Kaufman keeps his now massive collection of trains and accessories in a specially designed room over his garage.
“Welcome to Charlestown,” reads the sign in the room. “Population 1. Est. 1986. Charles E. Kaufman, President, Governor, Mayor, Sheriff and Chief of Police.”
Charlestown, where the trains run on large raised platforms that fill a room, is a marvel, down to every last tiny detail.
On the left side is the Christmas village, its decorated shops and houses showing their holiday finery. There’s a team of Clydesdale horses pulling a wagon, skaters dancing on ice and jolly snowmen dotting the snowy landscape.
Another part of town is the industrial area, with oil rigs, an oil tanker, an Esso loading station, a raised water tank, an ice car with plastic ice, a sawmill, a locomotive backshop and much more.
And through the center is a massive amusement park and every sort of building you would expect to find in a 1950s town. Kaufman built the entire display himself.
“These trains are a microcosm of American life in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” Kaufman said. “It’s my concept of Americana in that post-war period.”
Along the walls of his private museum, hundreds of Lionel train cars line the narrowly spaced shelves.
Kaufman, who grew up 60 miles outside New York City, got his first train set at age 5 or 6 from his aunt.
“You would go from house to house playing with the trains,” he said. “I have been into trains ever since.”
His father’s office was in Manhattan, right across the street from the big Macy’s Department Store, the perfect place to buy Lionel trains to add to his growing collection.
“We had a big house,” he said. “My train layout was on the third floor.”
On the recommendation of family friends, Kaufman came to LSU.
“My father took my train down and packed up every nut, bolt and piece of track,” he said.
Kaufman finished college, medical school and advanced training, and he and his wife, Elise, and their two small sons moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he joined the medical staff at Brown University.
He soon sent for the trains, and, because his father had packed them so carefully, they were in perfect condition.
The Kaufmans began spending weekends at train meets all over the Northeast. Dealers would set up tables filled with toy trains.
“It was a whole society of friendship from the president of the bank to the guy who picked up your trash, everyone collecting trains,” Kaufman said. “It was such fun to put sets together.”
Because Kaufman had enjoyed his years at LSU so much, the family decided to move to Baton Rouge.
“In the North, people put their trains in attics or basements,” he said. “The problem is that in Baton Rouge, there are no basements.”
The Kaufmans bought a house thinking they would expand the garage for a train room, but they couldn’t get a permit because of a servitude.
“Elise had the idea to take the roof off the garage and build a second story,” he said.
With the expanded space, the collecting intensified. About 2005, he “got into the computer age,” when his friend, Charles McCowan, a lifelong collector of toy soldiers, introduced him to eBay.
“It opened up the hobby to anything and everything a collector would want,” Kaufman said.
He had always dreamed of finding a top-of-the-line train set someone had bought and put away for decades — something from the 1950s that had never been used. In 1995, at a big train show in Baton Rouge, Kaufman’s dream came true.
“A guy came in with a set he said his dad had bought and just put away. It had never been run,” Kaufman said.
Everything was original — a collector’s prize.
Because he’s running out of space, Kaufman no longer does much collecting, but he still attends meetings of train clubs, including the local chapter of the Train Collectors Association.
“The trains have been my biggest enjoyment,” Kaufman said. “As a physician, I trained to think one way, but working with the trains taught me to think a completely different way but completely logically. The trains were a great place to escape.”