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For the love of railroading

April 1, 2012
Story, photos by Fritz Busch , The Journal

Growing up in Morgan, decades ago, Jim and Perry Becker used to play their their father Clarence's Lionel train set in the basement when they weren't working in the family-owned downtown grocery store.

"I wrecked it pretty good myself...but Perry and I always loved trains," Jim admitted.

The boys viewed model railroading as more of a business than merely for the fun of building sets and watching them operate.

Article Photos

Jim Becker displays two of many model railroad accessories his business stocks in Morgan.

"Perry wanted to go into HO (size) model railroad locomotives and cars, so we bought used stuff and started selling it," Jim Becker said, manning the mail order business in a room stacked high with brass and plastic model locomotives, train cars and related parts in the back of the grocery store.

Jim Becker sampled life in the big city, working in a Chicago-Burlington-Quincy Railroad mailroom for six months before moving back to Minnesota, studied education, became a teacher, but kept his love of railroading.

A business, typing and computer keyboarding teacher at Fairfax High School, and GFW (Gibbon Fairfax Winthrop) Middle School in Fairfax, Becker typed and maintained lists of Perry's Hobbies customer names and addresses for decades.

Fact Box

Morgan natives Jim and Perry Becker became interested in railroads from their father Clarence as youngsters more than 45 years ago. Their passion continues today, operating a mail order business for books, DVD (digital video disks) and HO, HOn3, N, Z and O brass and plastic model trains.

The company advertised high and low-end items in Model Railroad magazine.

"We had 8,000 customers at one time, across the country, Australia and parts of Europe," he added. "We thrived for a long time because we sold model trains cheap and sold lots of them."

Becker's son Paul of Lewiston, near Winona, is part of the business and share's his father's and uncle's passion for trains. Paul took a number of photos for the firm's train calendar that continues to be published each year.

"I think we're the only hobby shop in the United States with our own calendar," Jim Becker said.

He added that the business was unique in other ways in that it offered and continues to offer a Lay-A-Away Policy before credit cards came to be.

Terms include a 90-day limit, 30 percent down, subject to cancellation and down payment forfeited if balance not paid in full within 90 days, unless other arrangements are made.

Becker said the business really thrived in the 1970s and 1980s when it was one of the largest of its kind in the country.

The business regularly mails out inventory lists with items on sale.

"There aren't as many people interested in model railroading now as there were, but there still are people doing it," he added.

Many of the railroading books and DVDs available on wide screen and Blue Ray are historical accounts like The Rock Island (railroad) in Minnesota with photos and maps, Chicago railroad scenes from decades ago, The Historical Atlas of North American Railroads, Short Lines in the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak, An American Story, Coal Trains at Powder River (Wyoming) Basin, and others.

Becker said plastic model railroad locomotive engines and cars and most popular these days but he stocks modern-day brass locomotives that cost hundreds of dollars.

Most days, you can find Jim Becker tending shop in the back of the downtown Morgan grocery store.

"Most of the business is mail order and by phone calls, but the shop still needs daily tending," he added.

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