Thomas E. Gibson, a legendary Sacramento toy train guru, purchased his first toy train collection from a customer when he was a milkman in 1965.
Over the years, he continued to accumulate toy trains, from early 20th Century models to recent ones, even until the day he was hospitalized for a rare blood disorder that ultimately cost him his life last April.
Much of his legacy, from Lionel steam locomotive models worth well over $1,000 to a 1949 Superman comic book teaching children about trains, is packed in a 3,500-square-foot warehouse in south Sacramento.
His daughter, Karen Gibson-Noriega, recently began an estate sale of her father’s collection, as none of his descendants want to keep it. The sale continues every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the end of April.
All told, Gibson’s collection includes upwards of 30,000 trains, according to estate sale manager Ravel Buckley. Its breadth wasn’t known – even by his family – until after Gibson died.
“He was very private,” Gibson-Noriega said. “Nobody knew that he actually had a full warehouse.”
He wasn’t just a collector; rather, he was a walking toy train encyclopedia and an excellent repairman who was knowledgeable of trains from any era, often asked to help out with museum displays and national conventions, according to his friend, Ric Wilson. He eventually turned his hobby into a profession. The back of his van was always filled with heavy toy train boxes.
In 1984, Gibson and his wife opened Teddies and Trains in Sacramento, which remained in business until 1991.
“He loved being in there and teaching about toy trains,” Gibson-Noriega said.
Since the estate sale began last weekend, many toy train hobbyists have stopped by the gigantic warehouse to see Gibson’s collection and possibly find new additions to their own. Gibson’s trove contained not only complete train operating sets, but many detailed parts to fix broken trains. A company from the East Coast even asked about purchasing the entire collection, Buckley said.
“A man from Jackson came by and said, ‘Oh, I would love to volunteer and help you set up,’ ” Buckley said. “Like this, train people are extremely passionate about collecting trains, so we do have volunteers just because they want to see this.”
Extensive toy train collections like Gibson’s might have been more popular several decades ago; however, given the popularity of modern gaming systems and smartphones, toy trains are constantly losing ground in a battle against technology.
“It’s really sad for folks that have invested a lot and spent a lot of time collecting them, and their kids don’t want them,” Buckley said. “Kids today, the younger generation, are experiencing the world in much different way.”
John DeHaan, past president of the Toy Train Operating Society’s Sacramento Valley Division, laments that interest is shrinking. Over the years, monthly meeting attendance has decreased; many members have passed away or retired, and the society has struggled to attract younger generations.
DeHaan lowered the organization’s membership cost and offered discounts to special meetings during his presidency, but found no significant progress. The Sacramento chapter currently has 100 registered members, down from 140 just a few years ago.
Companies such as the Lionel Corporation and MTH Electric Trains are manufacturing toy trains with advanced technologies. Some come with remote controls, and their products’ artistry has significantly improved. Lionel introduced an app that allows consumers to control any Lionel train from a mobile device over a wireless network.
“The ultimate goal is to increase the popularity of collecting trains.” said Curtis Darling, current president of the local Toy Train Operating Society. “There are so many more great possibilities with smartphones and everything else you are able to do.”
Last October, the local Toy Train Operating Society held a special train show for Gibson in place of its monthly meeting.
Wilson, Gibson’s best friend, neighbor and former treasurer for the Sacramento Valley Division of the Toy Train Operating Society, recalled meeting Gibson at least twice a week for breakfast and subsequently train shopping sessions and discussions.
Even on the day Gibson was hospitalized, the two train enthusiasts met to purchase another train after a usual breakfast. With friends like Wilson that shared his passion, Gibson went to almost every convention and train stores even when he was ill.
Gibson, the “toy train Santa Claus,” is a legend to be remembered, Wilson said.
“(Gibson) was a president for several toy train clubs,” Wilson said. “Train would have been his middle name.”
Walter Ko: 916-321-1436
Toy train estate sale
When: Through the end of April on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m, and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: 6965 Luther Dr., Sacramento