Len’s Trolley: A “Small Wonder” at Kendal at Oberlin

Lens' TrolleyThis story, written by Roderic Knight, tells the story of Len’s Trolley, the model streetcar display that Kendal resident Len Garver created as a youth, and continued to develop over many years. Len passed away recently, but the legacy of his trolley will continue to bring joy to members of the Kendal at Oberlin community – both young and young-at-heart –  for years to come. 

Len Garver, age fifteen, stood at the corner of 3rd & Michigan in Milwaukee. At his back towered the four story Public Service Building, made of ivory-glazed brick, with its huge sign on top and six bays for all the streetcars and interurbans that converged on Milwaukee. The year was 1947. Len had his still camera and his notebook. On other trips he made via the interurban from his home in Racine, he brought his 8mm movie camera. Like many boys his age, he was fascinated with the operation of this vast electric-powered network. But unlike most, he decided he would try to build his own replica of this, his favorite street corner, with its tracks and overhead wires coming and going in all directions.

Len's Trolley

Len Garver, at right, running the trolleys with Rod in Heiser Lounge, Sept 2013.

Build it he did, and even though his table was only 3 x 4 feet, he packed onto it four loops of track all leading to that critical intersection, with eighteen switches to select between them. It took him close to twenty years to finish it, all custom designed and scratch built. He had already married Nancy Bradford and was starting his career as an electrical engineer for GE when he and his father-in-law finally rigged the last few lengths of overhead wire to make it fully operational.

After 33 years at GE in Schenectady, he and Nancy moved to Kendal. Len obtained permission to park his beloved layout, now looking a bit forlorn, in a corner of the Hobby Room. The year was 1994. Two decades before, Len had suffered a stroke that left his right arm limp, so he hadn’t been able to work on the trolleys much. But the layout had not lost its appeal. When Oberlin resident Rod Knight, on a tour of the building, saw it, he was drawn to it like a magnet. Slowly Len and Rod began to put it back in order, getting the two trolley cars to run smoothly again, building new controllers for them, touching up the roadways and green spaces with fresh paint, and buying buildings, automobiles, and people, all in the proper HO scale, to make it look like a tiny cityscape.

Buoyed by success, in 2011 Len and Rod began a tradition of rolling out the layout to the main lounge once a month to capitalize on its entertainment value. They would sit at the controls, set the switches for one of over 100 routes they had devised, then try to master it without head-on collisions or side-swipes. It was all a matter of wits and timing – no automatic controls. Anyone who expressed an interest was welcome to give the throttle a try as guest conductor for a day.

Sadly, in March of this year, Len died at age 81, but not before he had taught Rod everything there was to know about his layout. And thus, Len’s Trolley rides on, continuing to fill its “small wonder” status at the Kendal community of Oberlin.