He doesn’t use words, or even music. He’s more like a painter or a sculptor.

But John Cassel is a visual artist – through self-expression, a teller of stories that usually resonate with messages.

Now, his current project is neither his greatest nor his latest. But as a storyteller, it may be the one closest to his heart.

Cassel’s medium? Model train displays.

Cassel’s current project, which is on display at the Derry Township Historical Society, is sort of a redo of an old classic. It’s called “The Chocolate Town Special,” but what it really is is a timeless hit.

“It depicts Hershey as it was in 1920, with true replicas of things downtown, surrounded by typical scenery seen in rural central Pennsylvania at the time,” said Cassel. “It’s just the name of the display and what we’re depicting with the diorama. It’s not the name of a train or a trolley car. It was originally built in ’95 by Dave Laughery and myself to be an ongoing display in the museum that was at that time located in [Hersheypark].

John Cassel poses with the Chocolate Town Special. (Jeff Falk)

“We built it in sections, so it could be stored and reconstructed for display four or five months every year,” added Cassel, “It was displayed for five years in a row, and then after the fifth year the layout was placed in storage for many years. A gentleman purchased it from the museum. He had it in his possession and then he rededicated it to this museum, and we were called upon to reconstruct it.”

“The Chocolate Town Special” re-debuted to rave reviews from a new audience July 9 at the Derry Township Historical Society’s Museum at 40 Northeast Drive in Hershey. The intricate N-scale – or 1 to 160 proportion to actual size – model train display will be exhibited through December.

“At that time (1995), the museum curators decided on the era,” said Cassel, who owns and operates Scale Model Railroads in Palmyra. “We were contracted to build it. I think it was just for nostalgic reasons. There are not many recognizable buildings still standing in Hershey. I think that may have been what they were trying to touch on when they asked for that era. That’s when things started to get lively.

“A lot of the main scenes are of what would’ve been going on in the 1920s. This is pretty much the way the town looked. The archives supplied us with fire insurance maps that were the footprints. There are literally thousands and thousands of photos of Hershey, from every angle.”

A scene from the Chocolate Town Special. (Jeff Falk)

Unlike the current layout of downtown Hershey, the centerpiece of “The Chocolate Town Special” is Milton Hershey’s massive chocolate factory. The 25-foot-by-15 foot display also features the Lebanon branch of the Reading Railroad, trolley cars and other modes of local transportation of the day, Hershey’s mansion and many of the historic buildings downtown.

Set in a recent light snow fall, “The Chocolate Town Special” also includes hundreds of imaginary Hershey residents, countless trees and even an ice-skating pond. The model train display’s meticulous attention to detail creates an awe-inspiring sense of reality, transporting the viewer to a different time and place.

“My memory of building it was vague, but we had tons of photos to rely on,” said Cassel. “Everything was well labeled, so putting it back together was fairly easy. To me and David, it was emotional. We put a lot of research into it when we first built it.

“If we would built it today, I would say it would cost close to $30,000. What you see on top is one thing. What you don’t see underneath is where the money is. There are hundreds and hundreds of feet of wire. You have to stay devoted to what you’re doing. Once you formulate a plan, you have to pursue it till you get there.”

While the “The Chocolate Town Special” has become a historically significant Hershey treasure, in another way it’s just all part of a day’s work for Cassel. It’s what he does. Since starting Scale Model Railroads in 1986, Cassel has either helped design or build over 500 model train layouts, for both museums and private collectors.

“We don’t build toys, we build scale-model layouts to any scale,” said Cassel, a 75-year-old resident of Palmyra. “The thing with model railroaders, they want to do their own building, but then some get started and realize what goes into it. That’s the market for me. Some are museum quality, and their prices reflect that. But we always try to tell a story with a layout.

“With the business, we don’t do just big layouts,” he added. “We also do small portable ones. I would say that on the average about 100 to 150 hours of work goes into a small portable layout. There’s a lot of detail that goes into them. But we don’t go into such detail for all of them.”

Evolved from a hobby

Not unlike many enterprises, Scale Model Railroads is a business that evolved from a hobby. Cassel sort of stumbled upon it one day, while sharing the passion with his son.

“When my son was 12 years old, I built him a layout,” said Cassel. “Then, just out of the blue, he said, ‘We could sell these.’ I built a portable display and took it to a show in Maryland. I don’t think it was there for an hour and it sold. Then I started taking orders for three at a time.

“I have evolved because now I insist on more details on the layouts. Most of my clients are people who want all the details that can be included on the layouts. They’re just people who have successful businesses and can afford to do it. They have trains, but they don’t have the displays that people can come and see.”

A scene from the Chocolate Town Special. (Jeff Falk)

Originally, Cassel fell in love with model train displays in much the same way his son did. In that sense, John’s work has carried on a Cassel family tradition.

“We always had train displays at our house,” said Cassel. “When I was maybe 5 years old, my grandfather got me a Lionel train. The layout was only allowed to be up one month in December. I was so upset when I had to take it down. When I was younger, my grandfather set it up for me, but as I got older, I would set it up myself.”

Fast forward seven decades, and while he may have slowed down just a bit, Cassel is going strong. He still works full-time as a fork-lift operator and operates Scale Model Railroads as a side business.

“Now, I can only do portable layouts of 4-by-8 feet,” said Cassel. “I can’t crawl around the floor anymore. If I can tip the layout on its side at my workshop, I’m OK.

“It’s very popular,” he concluded. “The bigger trains have come so far with the technology since I was a kid. Now that’s starting to phase into all of the other scales. The hardest part now is getting young people involved in it. Once they get their hands on it, they’re hooked. The majority of people who are into model train displays are in their 60s and 70s. There’s also a good group of people who are in the 30-to-50 range. But it takes a mix of ages.”

It’s the same universal appeal that makes “The Chocolate Town Special” so special.

A scene from the Chocolate Town Special. (Jeff Falk)
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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...