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Hometown hobbyist: Local model railroader has recreated the Benton of his youth

  • Benton businessman Bill Whittington poses with a portion of the train layout he has built in the basement of his home over the past decade.

    Benton businessman Bill Whittington poses with a portion of the train layout he has built in the basement of his home over the past decade.
    Ceasar Maragni Photos

  • Elmo Heaton's sidewalk market on Benton's West Main Street was a busy place fifty years ago during Bill Whittington's childhood and is just one of many such local businesses he has recreated on his HO scale train layout.

    Elmo Heaton's sidewalk market on Benton's West Main Street was a busy place fifty years ago during Bill Whittington's childhood and is just one of many such local businesses he has recreated on his HO scale train layout.

  • Doerr's Meat Market on Benton's West Main Street was a busy place 50 years ago during Bill Whittington's childhood and is just one of many such local businesses he has recreated on his HO scale train layout.

    Doerr's Meat Market on Benton's West Main Street was a busy place 50 years ago during Bill Whittington's childhood and is just one of many such local businesses he has recreated on his HO scale train layout.

 
By Ceasar Maragni
Contributing Writer
updated: 8/1/2022 7:23 PM

Hobbies are often a great way to take our minds away from the strains and stresses of our work day world.

Benton businessman Bill Whittington has found a hobby that helps him do just that, especially during the weary winters we experience here in southern Illinois.

The 51-year-old Benton native, like many of his friends, grew up enjoying fishing, hunting and sports in his spare time.

Then ten years ago he rediscovered a hobby that he and his father once shared in the crowded basement of the white frame house he grew up in just a few blocks off the Benton Public Square.

Whittington explained, "I remember first seeing a train layout when I was a kid and we were at my cousin's house in Chicago. Not long after we got back home my dad helped me set up one. We used a big sheet of plywood set and two sawhorses. But the location with a nearby coal furnace wasn't really ideal and I moved on to other things."

He said that that all changed just over a decade ago.

"When I heard that my friend Greg Kimmel had a nice layout, and I went and saw it -- that was it, I was hooked!" he said. "I also sought advice from other Benton train hobbyists along the way including Dennis Toth, Scott Page and Billy Hammond."

That was about the time he and his wife Kelli were having a new home built just south of town, so he had the carpenters build the wooden framework for a train layout in a 15-by-13 foot room he had chosen for that purpose.

Being a novice at the steep learning curve involved in designing, wiring and building that goes into such layouts, Whittington hired Don and Dave Cardiff, a father and son team from Evansville, Ind., who specialize in designing and wiring train layouts. He smiled, saying, "That saved me a ton of time and frustration."

After that he went about the actual process of purchasing, building, painting and crafting all the necessary buildings and accessories for the desired effect he wanted to create.

He added "I wanted my layout to look like Benton did when I was a child growing up here. So I choose to recreate Benton as it looked in October 1978."

Anyone familiar with the town during the '70s would certainly spot many recognizable miniature versions of local buildings and businesses among the 78 structures of that time period he has included in his impressive layout.

Among them are HO scale versions of Elmo Heaton's Market, Benton Bakery, Stotlar Motors, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Doerr's Meat Market, The Liquor Barrel, Pizza Hut, Krogers, Neal & Sons, Clark's gas station, Thoman's Garage and many others.

When asked if he considers his train layout finished, Whittington laughed, "Oh, no, I'll always be tweaking and changing things around. That's part of the fun of it. Besides out four-year old grandson Henry loves it. Sometimes he sits down here with me for hours enjoying it. Matter of fact I'm going to start building his own layout in the barn soon. I've already got the track and the train for it -- I just have to build it."