David Zucker placed his hands on the shoulders of his sons, Mike and Jeff Zucker.
Many hobby stores don’t have a plan for the future, he said.
“We have ours right here,” David said.
The Zuckers, David, Deb, Mike and Jeff have more than just a hobby store — Spring Creek Model Trains of Deshler is a living catalog of everything trains visited by enthusiasts from all over the world.
That includes a back room where customers can start building their vision, which might display one of David’s background grain bins he is working on with a company to mass produce.
The Zuckers, who also own an agricultural construction business, Zucker Pivot, have quite the journey behind them, and ahead.
Last year, Spring Creek received national attention from two awards. Model Railroader Magazine told the Zuckers it was an extremely close race between Spring Creek and a much larger dealer, Lombard Hobbies of Chicago, in the 2020 Readers Choice awards for Favorite Retail Hobby Storefront. Spring Creek was awarded the Honorable Mention in the category.
And for 2021, Walthers, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of model trains, named Spring Creek as one of its Brick and Mortar Brigade winners.
Deb said they needed a brick and mortar storefront as the hobby business grew from small enclosed trailer to the basement of her brother’s NAPA store in Hebron.
“Craig sold the business and we need a new location,” Deb said about moving to Deshler.
At first, the building seemed too large, Deb said.
“It was just the opportune time to make that leap, and we bought this in 2009,” Deb said.
He couldn’t have been more right. In 11 years, Spring Creek has developed into wall-to-wall inventory and train memorabilia.
“So many stores don’t have much of an inventory, and most people, when they walk in the door for the first time, will stop in their tracks,” David said.
He and Deb had wondered if the hobby store would ever come this far. A friend had told him he didn’t see why it wouldn’t.
“He said, ‘All you have to do is create a destination,’ and I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but I do now,” David recalled.
Spring Creek is a destination for hobbyists who will take detours from their trips to visit Deshler, and like the folks from Pennsylvania, stay overnight to spend the day inside the store.
The Zuckers have met customers from Maine, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, and they know their regulars, like the fellow from Australia who takes a vacation to the U.S. every two years.
“Our store is reaching people all over the world and we’re shipping boxes overseas,” Mike said.
“Our newest one is we sent a package to Russia,” Deb said.
She pointed out there are local train hobbyists, too, more than people think. Spring Creek is also a new discovery for people living in Thayer County.
One of the latest discoveries from afar was made by a couple in Duluth, Minn. They found the model train niche through the Thayer County Economic Development Alliance commercial, featuring 8-year-old Grace Wit shopping at boutiques and stores in the county.
They’ve also been a part of the train show circuit for years with the trailer stocked.
“We rent 18, 8-foot tables with shelving. We started small, but it would take David and I 10 hours to unpack and set up for the show. That’s what built the following,” Deb said.
David said their schedule had them at 40 to 44 train shows every year.
“The advent of the internet, and our growth and our learning curve, it just kind of all went together. We can do this from right here in Deshler,” Deb said.
Trains have always been a part of their lives, from Deb’s dad, Kenley German, the last agent on the Rock Island Railroad that ran to Hebron, Deshler and Ruskin, to David’s childhood fascination with trains. He’s worked on model trains since he was 10 years old.
“There’s a picture of me, I think when I was five or six, playing with his trains on the floor,” Jeff said about his dad. “They thought they had them up high enough I couldn’t get to them.”
He and Mike had talked about moving back home from their professional careers in Lincoln and Omaha — Jeff was in information technology and Mike was a civil engineer for Union Pacific — for several years before the time to do it was ripe.
“It’s cool to see our kids growing up away from the city. There’s more opportunities,” Mike said.
Spring Creek is in the midst of another custom-run piece, a train car that carries vehicles.
“We invest the money to make the car. We’re having it painted. We will be the exclusive dealer of the car,” Mike said.
“It’s our 21st custom-run,” Jeff confirmed.
“It’s due to show up in about a month or so,” Deb said.
They may have some left by July when Spring Creek Model Trains is scheduled to hold its fourth bi-annual train show at the Thayer County Fairgrounds.
The event brings clubs and train hobbyists from around the country, and every year, the Zuckers add a different flair feature for variety.
About 600 to 800 attend, and the manufacturers are impressed, Mike said.
“They like we draw a crowd that’s very interested in model trains,” he said.
“It’s really been a lot of fun to do that show,” Deb said. “The train show is good for the county. It fills up the local hotel. It would be nice to have a hotel here in Deshler and a bigger one in Hebron.”
The train show will go on, provided Covid-19 behaves itself, David said.
He said Covid-19 lock downs have caused hobby stores to close, in addition to shaky plans for the future.
“We feel real lucky and we’re blessed they’re here to continue,” David said about the younger Zuckers.