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PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES | Michigan man builds massive 'holiday railway'

Bill Vander Vennen became interested in toy trains when he was a child. Today, at 79, he's meticulously created a breathtaking model train display in his basement.

WALKER, Mich. — At their core, hobbies are escapisms. They're a chance to allow us to 'veer off the tracks' of everyday life and, oftentimes, mindlessly do something other than the daily grind.

A former West Michigan firefighter's hobby, ironically, is the opposite. For his hobby to function properly, he must keep everything 'on' the tracks - at all times.

When Bill Vander Vennen was 8 years old, he recalls his parents getting him interested in toy and model train sets.

"At Christmas time, we always had a train running around the bottom of the tree," said Vander Vennen, 79, and chaplain of the Grand Rapids Fire Department. "I would always ask for and receive train cars and parts as gifts."

Like most teenagers, Vander Vennen's interest in toy trains faded, but not completely. He picked up the hobby again 30 years ago, and he's been hardcore into it ever since.

"Other places I've lived, we had to find a corner here and a corner there for my trains," said Vander Vennen. "Some had to be suspended from the ceiling."

Since moving to his current residence in Walker, Mich., Vander Vennen has finally found the room to go all-out in terms of a model train display.

"For the past 11 years, I've been working on it," said Vander Vennen. "I'd buy pieces and parts here and there, either on eBay or find them at garage sales."

Today, he has a massive and meticulously constructed, two-tiered train display which allows him to operate five different trains at one time. 

"Much of the display is Christmas-themed," Vander Vennen said. "There are also many individual displays based off experiences my family has had, such as ice fishing and all sorts of summer activities."

He's also created several cities and an airport for the trains to travel through.

"The potential is definitely there for expansion," Vander Vennen said. "I'm considering a third, possibly fourth level.

"What you see is definitely not the finished product."

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