^BC-VA--Vanishing Trainland, Bjt,680
^Model trail landmark closing for good
^An AP Member Extra
^BY LINDA McNATT= ^The Virginian-Pilot=
SUFFOLK, Va. Before the pictures of his wife and children, the first photo you see when you walk into Michael S. Twiford's office at Mike's Trainland is one of Arthur J. ``Junie'' Lancaster Jr.
The older man, who died two years ago, is wearing his standard red suspenders and a broad smile that was just as much a part of his everyday outfit.
The two men, Twiford will tell you, shared a love for model trains. Out of that love grew a bond so strong that Twiford still gets tears in his eyes when he talks about the man he says was ``like a father'' to him.
And out of that love grew a business.
For 15 years, Mike's Trainland and Lancaster Train and Old Toy Museum graced a winding country road in northern Suffolk. It attracted old and young alike from miles around. It was a favorite stop for touring school groups. It was Suffolk's only attraction that boasted an interstate highway sign.
On Jan. 18, all of that will be over. Mike's Trainland is closing. A sign in the parking lot reads: liquidation sale.
Several things led to Twiford's decision to close the business. Lancaster's decision shortly before his death to move his vast train collection to Portsmouth may have been the biggest reason.
Trainland started at Coleman Nursery in Portsmouth, where Lancaster's dreams for wonderlands that made children smile took root as quickly as the azaleas and rose bushes.
When he was still a youngster, Twiford helped Lancaster start Trainland there in 1968. In 1979, Lancaster sold the business to Twiford.
The business moved to Suffolk in 1983. Trainland had outgrown its space at the nursery, and Lancaster by then was growing ornamental shrubs and trees.
The business side of the new venture Mike's Trainland was Twiford's. The museum side was Lancaster's million-dollar collection of antique model trains. Lancaster retained ownership of the rustic, wooden, 1600-square-foot building.
Lancaster, Twiford said, loved nothing more than to see smiles on the faces of the children who visited there.
``Mr. Lancaster could have put an admission charge on the museum, but he never did,'' Twiford said.
In October 1993, when Lancaster was gravely ill with Parkinson's disease and in a nursing home, he told Twiford about another dream. He wanted to see a miniature train that children could ride at the Suffolk location.
By December 1994, the ride was operating.
Meanwhile, Lancaster's condition was deteriorating. In 1994, he and his wife decided to gift the Children's Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth with the antique train collection.
The collection would remain at the Suffolk museum until renovations were complete in Portsmouth.
Twiford thought the trains would be at Mike's through the holidays.
But in late September, the collection was packe and moved, just before Twiford's busiest time of the year.
Late the following month, he was informed that the business would have to be out of the building by mid-January.
Combined with increased competition from catalog and Internet sales, Twiford said he knew the holiday season when he usually expected about 60 percent of his annual sales would be slow. The toy museum was a major attraction.
In early December, the outdoor train ride was sold.
``That was devastating,'' Twiford said. ``We had to notify school groups that were already booked to come in.''
Twiford's lease on the building ends Jan. 15.
Mildred Lancaster, Junie Lancaster's widow, said that she will miss Mike's Trainland, but business decisions took priority. She said she has no plans for the property.
Charles Parkerson, another Lancaster protege who owns Lancaster Farms, just across from Mike's Trainland, didn't know that Mike's was closing until recently.
``We'll miss it,'' Parkerson said. ``Mr. Lancaster thought so much of that place. I guess there just wasn't enough traffic to keep it going.''
(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)