While children watched with delight at the chugging engines winding around the magical scene, DeVries examined what needed fixing. It’s the labor of love for which he’s served as the on-call engineer for more than 20 years.
But now the Kentwood man is ready to hang up his cap. The final trip around the tracks comes Jan. 2 or 3.
“It’s a full-time job,” said DeVries, 79. “You have to get here every other day to fix something.”
Steve and Kristen Nauta, of Kentwood, were glad their daughter, Abby, 4, could see it for a second year.
“It’s amazing,” said Steve Nauta. “Kids love it and I think it’s a gift.”
Each year, beginning in early November, DeVries has set up the 18-by-36-foot display with family and friends. After that, hours are devoted to keeping it powered, on track and in motion. He said he couldn’t have done it without the help of many others.
DeVries, who contracts with the mall to set up and maintain the display, took over the duties a couple of years after a mall bookstore started a display tied to the release of East Grand Rapids native Chris VanAllsburg’s 1985 children’s book, “The Polar Express.”
A lifelong collector and lover of trains, most of the display is his — and he and his wife, Shirley, have enjoyed sharing it with children who are now grown and bringing their children.
Complete with an 8-foot-tall snow-peaked mountain, the imaginative exhibit features boxcars carrying chocolates and twisting roads surrounding an old-fashioned town with stores, cars, gaslights and miniature workers. A scavenger hunt challenges children to find pieces.
DeVries said he plans to sell his pieces at auction or on eBay.
“We’re to the point now I think we can let it go,” Shirley said.
A retired Grand Rapids Community College physics professor, Herb DeVries said he still finds the machines fascinating.
“I was born with a train in my mouth,” he said. “I think when my father saw he had a boy, he ran out and bought a train.”
DeVries, who ran a mail-order business for trains made in Delton, said toy trains always surrounded his family’s Christmas tree growing up and he continued the tradition with his own three children. He remembers that The Lakeside Weekender on its track from Chicago would go through Holland, where he grew up, on Friday nights.
“When we would hear the whistle, Dad would say, ‘Time to go, kids!’ and we would hop in the car and beat the train to the train station,” he said. “Sometimes, on the way back, we would get root beer.”
Shirley DeVries, Herb’s wife of 57 years, said she has enjoyed the ride. The couple has ridden the rails all through the country and Europe.
“It’s grown on me,” she said. “He was involved in it, so I became involved in it, too.”
They have loved seeing the trains become a part of other families’ traditions.
“The response that we get from the community is what keeps us going,” Herb DeVries said.
A sign-in book next to the display was completely filled with notes of thanks and farewell. One entry reads: “Although I’ve admired your display for years, now I can see it through the eyes of my 14-month-old and am even more amazed. So sad he won’t get to grow up with it like I did.”