Desert Division - The First Decade 1970-1980

Tom Stange -
BOD Meeting 70's

In the late 1960’s a group of tin plate train collectors who used to meet at a local hobby shop in Phoenix decided to split away from the local model railroad community and form a group unique to their passion of collecting and operating tin plate trains. Some members had been exposed to the Western Division of TCA and had thought about possibly becoming a chapter of that TCA Division. They formed a club of like minded collectors, both TCA members and not, and called themselves the Grand Canyon Train Collectors.

The group began regular meetings and newsletters in 1970 and established communications with the TCA to inquire about an affiliation. Jim Harrison became the lead person in the early days and was elected President of the newly formed club. Early letters from TCA showed that they too had an interest in establishing a new Division “out your way”, and early boundary requests had the proposed TCA Division encompassing numerous western states including Colorado.

Many of the members thought of keeping the Division exclusively within the state of Arizona but that soon changed after a Tucson Meet where members from Phoenix met TCA members from New Mexico and El Paso! As the letters were exchanged back and forth between Jim Harrison and the TCA Secretary, more realistic boundaries were proposed and the two day drive to Denver was dropped in favor of an easier four hour drive from Tucson to west Texas. Early names of the Arizona Division or the Grand Canyon Division were dropped and new choices included the Cactus Division, Great Southwest Division, Southwestern Division, Southwest Division, and the Desert Division. Membership in the Grand Canyon Train Collectors grew to the required twenty-five TCA members needed to petition the national Association and in the closing days before the June TCA National convention the membership agreed to having New Mexico and west Texas within the boundaries and settled on the name of Desert Division. The petition was presented at the TCA National Convention held in Anaheim California, at the Disneyland Hotel in June of 1971, where it was ratified and the Desert Division came into existence becoming TCA’s 14th Division.

According to the 1970 census, Phoenix was ranked the 20th largest city in the United States with a population of 581,500 and the entire state only having a population of 1,771,000. But as small as Phoenix and Arizona was at the time, TCA itself only had a total of 3,200 members nationwide, so there were going to be several challenges ahead to grow the new Division. Jim Harrison who made the transition possible was elected as the first Desert Division President. During those early years with Division membership hovering around 25 member mark the newly founded Division began to hold its first meetings at various members’ homes, however the fledgling Division struggled to establish a foothold in the sleepy desert city of Phoenix and after several years began to flounder. By 1975 no members stepped forward to run for office so a “scribe” was appointed to keep notes, send out meet notices, and watch over the very small treasury. Not having officers went against TCA National Bylaws and when they became aware of the Division’s actions phone calls were exchanged and at an emergency Desert Division meeting nominations for officers were received, an election held, and all offices were filled. Sometimes it takes the threat of losing everything you worked hard for, to make the realization of how special something really is. The Division has never looked back.


Shortly after the election in 1975 Division Bylaws were adopted and the energy, enthusiasm, and friendships that are now a trademark of the Desert Division and its members began to emerge. Instead of competing against other local train clubs, alliances were formed and joint meets, auctions, picnics and Christmas Parties began to take place. The Division Meets that were once held every quarter or even less frequent, started to be held on a regular monthly basis and at the same location.

BOD Meeting 70's

The membership responded, became stabilized and even began to grow and just two short years after its darkest hour, arguably the biggest event in Division history was started. In 1977 on the weekend following Thanksgiving, tables were setup at the Roadway Inn in Phoenix, and the first Thanksgiving Meet was held. This annual train show sponsored by the Division has become the largest Train Meet in the desert southwest and has run annually since it humble beginnings. However its famous moniker came from its “Big Brother”, the Cal-Stewart Meet held in Pasadena a few weeks earlier. Since many toy train collectors in Arizona would make the drive over to California each year, they asked the meet officials if they would announce their Thanksgiving Meet over the speaker system a few times during the Cal-Stewart Meet. It was there that the “gobble, gobble, thanksgiving Turkey Meet” was born. Obviously shortened to the catchy “Turkey Meet” phrase, the name stuck and by the time the third annual Thanksgiving Meet rolled around it was referred to as the “Turkey Meet” in all Divisions publications. 

Some of the Division’s members, layouts, and collections circa 1976 - 1978
Photographs courtesy Peter Atonna and Beth Stange

Mary Jane Atonna Display
Ed Battershell Collection
Cole Gibbs setting up his display.
Terry Gibbs minding the layout.
Nick Grippe and a Blue Comet.
Vince Koenke Display.
Vince Koenke Layout
Vince Koenke Layout.
Bob Kruse Display.
Ken Scharman Collection.
Ken Scharman Layout.
Ken Scharman Layout.
Ken Schmidt at workbench.
Ken Schmidt Collection.
Dennis Warren Layout.
Dennis Warren and Gary Frere
John Woods Layout.

With the first Thanksgiving Meet under their belts Division members began showing up and doing public train displays. 1978 was the breakout year with the Division beginning to setup layouts at the Big Boys and Their Toys show at the Phoenix Civic Plaza and the TTOS Open House. Then in 1979 in addition to setting up at Rail Fair in Scottsdale the Division also setup for the first time at a local shopping mall. That year, many members set up several of their own personal portable layouts for the first time at Thomas Mall. The event proved so popular with members that in 1979 they secured an even larger mall and setup their portable layouts for the first time at Chris Town Mall. The run at Chris Town Mall would last for almost 30 years, setting the stage for the Division’s long run of exposing toy trains of various vintages to the public, and an event that has never been equaled in TCA or any other toy train club or organization in history.
With its humble beginnings of a group of friends breaking away from the model railroad clubs in the area to establish a club of train collectors, to achieving and then almost losing its status as a Division of TCA, The Desert Division survived the first decade. The dedication of the charter members and of their President Jim Harrison, who worked to have the Grand Canyon Train Collectors become a TCA Division often, goes unnoticed by the members today. As the Desert Division, looks ahead to its 40th anniversary we wish to publicly recognize these individuals and their families, the twenty-five Charter Members of the Desert Division, who made it all possible.


Frank Bigelow
Miles Butler
Charles Cary
B. G. Davis
John Deremiah
Peter W. Greason
David Hansen

James R. Harrison, Jr.
Pat Hinshaw
Adolph O. Johnson
Robert L. Johnston
Frank J. Koening, Sr.
Frank J. Koening, Jr.

Robert M. McBratney
Robert M. McBratney, Jr.
Jerry Morris
William D. Roehr
Kenneth Rosenberger
Kenneth S. Scharman

Paul G. Schmidt
Thomas P. Stange
Ralph Walker
Ronald White
Sheldon White
Clifford R. Williams

Big Boys and Their Toys - Phoenix Civic Plaza – 1978
Photographs Courtesy Peter Atonna

Phoenix Civic Plaza - 1978
Cole's portable layout.
Phil Hill,Tom Cutrona
Phil Hill and Cole Gibbs
Tom Cutrona
Phoenix Civic Plaza
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First Train Layout at a Local Mall - Thomas Mall – 1978
Photographs courtesy Peter Atonna

Mary Jane Atonna at Thomas Mall
Gregg Hooker and MJ Atonna
Dennis Warren with display.
Tom Stange at Thomas Mall
Thomas Mall Display - 1979

RailFair 1979
Photographs courtesy Peter Atonna

Bob Kruse at Railfair
Railfair Layout - 1979
Railfair Layout - 1979
Newspaper Article on Railfair

First Division Module Layout at Chris Town Mall – 1979
Photographs courtesy Peter Atonna

Christown Mall Billboard
Christown Mall Display - 1979
Christown Mall Display - 1979
Christown Mall Display - 1979
Christown Mall Display - 1979
Christown Mall Display - 1979
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