Atlanta attorney Harmon Caldwell Jr. in his train layout room. (John Disney/Daily Report)
Trains and automobiles will do for the moment. Forget about planes.
Harmon Caldwell Jr., whose name is on the door at Caldwell & Watson, has loved trains since he was a kid, and has built a large collection to chug and smoke around his expansive home layout.
After high school, Caldwell—whose father served as president of the University of Georgia from 1935 until 1948 and was chancellor of the University System of Georgia from 1948 to 1964—found his interests drifted to faster things: top-fuel dragsters, which he raced at tracks all over the country. More smoke, less chugging.
That “On the Road” experience lasted about four years, and he returned home and attended Georgia State University, where he majored in sculpture and graduated with a degree in Visual Arts. Law school at the University of Georgia was next.
Then, in the ’90s, he built an electric car that still runs. He figures he was ahead of his time with the concept and couldn’t get funding to build more.
His most recent project has been “Harmon Caldwell’s Georgia Divorce Handbook,” which he wrote after running into way too many stressed-out clients stunned by the process of unhitching in the Peach State.
Through it all, he’s kept an interest in trains.
What started you collecting toy trains?
Like many other toy train collectors, I received a toy train for Christmas when I was a child. I spent countless hours playing with that train and others as I grew older.
There is a magic about the remote control, the train running along the tracks, the lights, sounds and smoke. Children are fascinated by electric toy trains, and like most collectors I want to hang on to that piece of my childhood.
How would you describe your home layout?
A work in progress. It’s also my own little ideal world. All of the track and wiring is complete. The trains run. Some of the buildings are finished. However, there are many buildings, scenery and figures yet to do.
What is your oldest train?
I still have the original train I got for Christmas and it still runs.
How much time do you put into your hobby?
Eight to 10 hours per week, more if I can. It is pure escapism.
Do you do this on your own or do other people help you build or at least play on the layout?
I do most of the work myself. I also have a good friend and former toy designer who has helped me with construction of the layout. I frequently have events at my house to show off my collection of toy trains, old toys and the layout.
What is the coolest layout you have ever seen?
There are so many wonderful layouts throughout the world—I couldn’t say one was the best.
The fun of building a layout is visiting other layouts, studying what others have done and then taking the ideas you like and building your own layout. My family and I have visited hundreds of layouts and all of those visits have contributed to what I have done.
You’re a longtime visitor to the train shows in York, Pa. What’s the best thing about that show?
The York show, which takes place in April and October of each year, is so big, it’s almost unbelievable. There will usually be 12,000 to 15,000 people in attendance. There are seven large buildings in which manufacturers, retailers and individuals buy, sell and trade. You never know what you will find.
It’s also a family event. My three children, the oldest of whom is 38 and the youngest is 18, each started going when they were about 5. They continue to attend regularly.
I tell my law partners the York show is one of the few places I can go and not think about a pending case.
Changing the subject from trains to cars, you raced top-fuel dragsters in the ’60s. That was more than a hobby, I take it?
It was not a hobby. I got really interested in cars and drag racing in high school. It was sort of an outlaw sport back in the ’60s. I worked on cars, saved my money, and in the summer after high school, 1966, went to California and got everything I needed for $1,600, other than an engine. I tied the frame on the top of my mom’s station wagon and brought it back.
I put an engine together—it was complete junk—but the fuel, nitro methane, would make anything go fast. Two weeks later, I was racing in Phenix City, Ala.
Most of the races in the ’60s were called “match races.” A promoter of a small-town drag strip would pay two drivers to race their cars against each other. It was the best of three runs. I would often race on a Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. I got between $1,000 and $1,500 for the three runs at each event. It was good money in the ’60s. I raced in literally hundreds of small towns throughout the United States.
To slow things down from your dragster days, you built an electric car in the ’90s, and you still have it? How did that project come about?
I love cars and wanted to do something different. Despite so much adverse publicity, electric cars work very well as commuter vehicles. In fact, in the early days of the automobile, there were more electric cars than gasoline cars. You may have heard the term “touring car”—that term was created around 1910 as a marketing strategy by the gasoline automakers to encourage automobile owners to buy a car in which they could take their families “touring” in the countryside on Sunday afternoons.
The electric car couldn’t do that, and gradually the “touring car” won out over the electric car. Since that time, electric cars have been nonexistent until very recently.
In the 1990s we built a lightweight electric car. It was very safe and it performed very well. It could reach speeds well over 100 mph but its range was 60-80 miles.
Despite some very good publicity, the concept of electric cars was so unpopular that I got nowhere in terms of funding the project. However, I still have the car and it still runs well.
Your latest project is a book on divorce. What did you see as the need there?
I have met with many divorce clients over the years. In every case, I have an initial meeting with the client. I give them an overview of the divorce process and the issues that they can expect will arise.
That meeting can be very difficult for clients. There were many occasions that I gave the client far more information than the client could absorb. I decided it would be helpful if I could give the client something he or she could take with them. Something they could read and reread in private. The book grew out of that concept.
Back to trains, an issue of Model Railroader magazine has musician Rod Stewart on the cover with his model of a city, and it’s huge. Is he the celebrity face of model trains?
He is one of many. Rod Stewart builds most of the buildings on his layout while on tour. He uses a separate hotel room, and his crew sets it up with all of the materials and tools to build the structures. He then takes them home and works them into the layout. His layout is gorgeous but there are many layouts equally impressive.
Would you rather have Rod Stewart’s voice or his train layout?
The fun of having a toy train layout is designing, building and operating your own little world. Everyone’s layout is unique. It’s theirs. I don’t want someone else’s layout. I’ll take his voice, along with his showmanship.