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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 22, 2018

Streetcar operators hope to bring new volunteers to Old Threshers through Saturday’s Trolley School

Students learned history, mechanics and operated trolleys on reunion grounds
By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News | May 09, 2018
Photo by: Grace King Participants 12 years old and older had the opportunity to operate the Midwest Old Thresher’s streetcars themselves Saturday, May 5 during the second year of Trolley School. Current volunteers and streetcar operators hope the Trolley School will encourage members of the community to pursue further training and become volunteers themselves during Midwest Old Threshers.

Walter Henkel traveled all the way from St. Louis, Mo. Saturday for Trolley School on the Midwest Old Threshers grounds.

A longtime volunteer during Midwest Old Threshers Reunion each August, Henkel drove to Mt. Pleasant to get certified to run the 1945 trolley car this year, shuttling people from one end of the grounds to another. Although he is already trained on operating trolley Car 381, he said this year that car is “down for the count” and was looking to be trained on a car that will be available for passengers.

While Henkel is one of the more experienced volunteers with Old Thresher’s trolleys, the majority of the 20-some Trolley School students on May 5 had never operated a streetcar before.

Jewell Amos, of Mt. Pleasant, recalled attending Old Threshers Reunion every year and grew up riding the streetcars. When she saw the opportunity to learn how to drive one herself, the little kid inside of her came out and she knew she couldn’t pass it up.

“I have a three-year-old daughter,” Amos said. “You get that childlike excitement when you’re hanging around kids.”

Jewell might be new to operating a trolley, but she said she comes from a family of drivers — her dad worked for the railroad and was always talking about engines when she was growing up. “It’s just one of the things we always did,” Amos said. You live out here (at Old Threshers) when you’re little.”

Current trolley volunteers not only got to share their passion with new students on Saturday but hope it will lead those students to seek their own operator certification and come back to volunteer during Reunions. In Henkel’s words, trolley operators are “a dying breed,” but through Trolley School, volunteers hope to keep the passion of streetcars alive.

This is the second year of Trolley School. While this year, the school was free to anyone interested, with triple the number of students this year than last, Midwest Electric Railway director Jeremy Hobbs said eventually they may have to start charging a small fee to cover the cost of operating the trolleys.

“The interest has always been there, but I don’t think anybody was ever given a chance (to operate a trolley),” Hobbs said. “Trolley School opened it up that people who do have an interest finally have a way in.”

“These folks will hopefully be volunteers in the future,” volunteer Wes Bender added. “The younger kids, I want them to run (the trolleys) today. I think they’ll get a better feel for it than the adults.”

As Trolley School participants transitioned from learning the history and mechanics of trolleys Saturday morning to hands-on operating experience, 14-year-old Dawson Gold, of Burlington, was the first to volunteer to drive one of the cars.

Gold sat at the front of the trolley with volunteer Devin Johnson patiently teaching him how to run the streetcar, which Johnson himself has been doing since he was 16 years old.

“It’s always fun to get new people involved and to share your hobby with them. We need new people,” Johnson said, adding that the biggest challenge is getting the feel for it because it operates so differently from a car.

While Gold said starting was a little rough, after a bit of operating, it felt like the most natural thing in the world as he pushed the throttle with his left hand from neutral to first point, second point, third point, fourth point and then all the way up to fifth point as the trolley approached an incline. Gold’s right hand rested on the trolley’s break, which is “fanned” to slow the trolley down and speed it up rather than pushed like a car break.

After having his turn at the front of the trolley, it was 14-year-old Chase Lenz’s turn to operate and Gold was sent to the back to learn the conducting side of running a streetcar.

“(Conducting is) about making sure passengers are loaded and unloaded safely. That’s the number one priority here at Midwest Old Threshers,” Gold said.

Over on the other car, 16-year-old Chyanne Walker was trying her hand at operating the trolley. As a pilot-in-training, Walker isn’t new to machines like trolleys and airplanes. What really brought her out Saturday, however, was spending time with her mother, who “just loves trains.”

“Some of the mechanics of it go together,” Walker said, talking about the similarities between understanding the engine of the trolley and an airplane.

As each student operated the trolley around the Old Threshers grounds, veteran trolley operator Henkel noted the enthusiasm of many of them, hoping it would encourage them to continue learning about trolleys.

While he admitted it would be a challenge, he also noted that, well, he had to learn how to do it too. “Of course, it took me 40 years to learn it,” Henkel said with a laugh.

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