Most train engineers don’t get to high-five the caboose. But most engineers have tracks to guide their way and a schedule to keep. Mick Patton just hops on the trusty John Deere tractor that has served as the train’s engine and guides the ever-popular kiddie train over the hot pavement, carefully picking his way through the dense crowds at the Grays Harbor County Fair.
Patton has served as the kiddie train engineer for seven or eight years, he guesses, and initially was volunteered for it by a neighbor. He wasn’t so sure about the assignment, but he’s been back every year with a smile on his face.
“It’s fun because of the little kids,” Patton said. “I love to do it.”
Fair Manager Mike Bruner called Patton a “fixture” of the fair, the face of the popular train.
“He’s the first phone call every year when we’re doing the scheduling,” Bruner said. Other volunteers drive the train, too, but Patton takes the bulk of the hours by far, Bruner said.
“I’ve had kids from when they can barely get on the train to when they can’t get on anymore. They’re very sad,” Patton said with a grin. The only requirement to ride the train is the ability to fit in the cars.
Patton has lived in Satsop for more than 40 years, and was a teacher in Rochester and Elma for 38. Sometimes his former students, their children and grandchildren are passengers on his train.
“They’ll tell the kids, ‘He was my teacher,’” Patton said.
The train is a special fixture of the fair in part because it’s free to ride, Bruner said. When money gets tight for families, the train adds a little bit of value to their day at the fair.
“There’s no charge, it’s no different from a carnival ride as far as the kids are concerned,” Bruner said. “They love it. You see a lot of smiling faces on that kiddie train.”
Two other volunteers built the train about eight years ago. Ralph Lockhart and Ward Whitacre teamed up for about four weeks of work on the train, with donations from Weyerhaeuser and the late Fred Brownfield, former promoter for Grays Harbor Raceway. The duo also built the “people movers,” with benches for grown-ups.
Lockhart jokes he’s a relative newcomer to the area, with 12 years in Elma. He was a plumbing contractor in Tacoma for his career and always loved to build things. He had seen trains at other fairs and events and was inspired to do his own version.
“I saw trains that were just a conglomerate of things and I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we have a uniform one,’” he said.
The cars are brightly painted re-purposed juice barrels, Lockhart said.
“They smelled like apple juice” as they worked on them, he recalled.
The train has been to numerous parades, including Ocean Shores and McCleary. It’s a big job to haul the train around, Lockhart said. He has a big trailer to fit it. His grandchildren used to love to ride in it for the parades, although they’re too big for it now.
“He’s an incredible volunteer and a great guy,” Bruner said of Lockhart.
Lockhart mainly works taking tickets during the fair for the more than 10,000 people who have attended each day so far, but he still gets to see kids light up at the gate when they see the train he worked so hard on drive by.
“They’re very ecstatic. They want to ride it right away,” he said with a laugh. “I think we did something worthwhile for the community.”