Well trained

Edmundston couple shows how to engineer a fulfilling retirement via a hobby turned career

Well trained
Géraldine and Guy Laforge with their newly acquired Dash 9 locomotive that is 1/8 scale to the real thing. The train weighs 900 pounds and has the capacity to haul 6,000 pounds. Currently it pulls five cars outfitted with benches to seat passengers.

Mention the word “train” or “railroad” to Guy Laforge, and his eyes shift to high beam. Laforge devotes almost every waking minute to his family business—Du Réel au Miniature Railroad Interpretation Centre—a major attraction on the outskirts of Edmundston, N.B.

It all started when Laforge built a miniature train set for his nine-year-old son in 1984. “Stephane grew up; I didn’t,” says the feisty 56-year-old who retired three years ago after almost four decades as a millwright and construction worker at Fraser Pulp Inc.

Since building that first train set, Laforge simply went on to build more and more—with larger layouts. In 1998 he and his wife, Géraldine, turned their garage into a retail shop to sell her crafts, and parts for model train sets to other hobbyists.

In 2004, they started to invite people into their basement to see the elaborate platforms Guy had set up depicting the days of rail in N.B., along with the growing number of railway artifacts they had collected (all donated).

Today, over 350 cars course the tracks through 900 sq. ft. of basement and it takes six trained operators to manage the rails. Adjoining rooms showcase additional memorabilia along with a wall of fame celebrating pioneer railroad workers and their descendants. Scores of volunteers have helped with the project, and they too are recognized.

The interpretive centre, opened in 2008, now houses over 4,500 artifacts related to the culture and history of trains; over 10,000 visitors passed through this summer. The guided tour, which costs nine dollars, includes access to the model train set-up in the basement and adjoining rooms.

This summer, the couple added a miniature outdoor rail line that provides a 10-minute ride on a 1,600-ft. loop at a cost of two dollars. Although valued at $500,000, they built it for a quarter of the price by using recycled materials and a lot of sweat equity.

For example, each of the 40,000 ties needed to make the wooden rails came from recycled wood that was cut and planed to precise measurements. Installing the rails on the tracks required 80,000 steel clips. “One clip costs $1.75,” says Guy. “We used old oil tanks and got 2,200 clips per tank, then sanded them by using an old cement mixer.” Result? A savings of $144,000 on clips alone.

Future plans include expanding the outdoor rail by an additional 10,000 feet, and adding a wilderness campground accessible only by their train. Accommodations will be wooden shanties outfitted with hammocks. Géraldine has already double-stitched 210 hammocks made from 1.5 tons of recycled jeans. “They have to be strong to carry lots of weight, and to be washed after each use,” says the 54-year-old.

The campground will also have a drive-in (think train-in with an outdoor seating area) featuring films from the Laforges collection of 150 train videos.

Advice for anyone considering retirement? Geraldine says “Have a plan B. Be prepared. Plan ahead.” Guy adds, “Find an interest or hobby before you retire because when you go on pension, that’s not the time to learn. And tear out the pages in the dictionary with words like ‘no’ and ‘impossible’. Everything is possible.”

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Picture 1 of 6

One of several scenes spanning 900 sq. ft. of railway layouts in the basement of the Laforge's home. This one is typical of a yard scene in the Madawaska region of N.B., depicting a sawmill crane ready to unload pulp wood.

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