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Chugging down the right track

Len Johnson, left, and Merle Thompson drive the Perham Express for all kinds of community events. They, along with a handful of other dedicated volunteers, entertain residents and tourists as they give them rides and tours of town. They also keep the trolley in tip-top shape. Photo by - Marie Nitke

Len Johnson still remembers his first close encounter with a train.

He and a few of his boyhood schoolmates skipped class and hopped on a 'Galloping Goose' to the next town, where they jumped off to see a movie for a quarter. They hitched a ride back in that same rebellious way, and no one was ever the wiser.

Today, Len's school-skipping days are long behind him -- but his adventures with trains are far from over.

Len is one of the friendly faces behind the wheel of the Perham Express.

If you've ever ridden in it, you've probably met him. You may have also heard him tell any number of stories about Perham, about the train or about his childhood -- maybe you've even already heard the one about the 'Galloping Goose.'

It's these entertaining tales of his -- as well as the stories, jokes and earnest efforts of all the volunteers who keep the Perham Express moving -- that make the little black and yellow trolley so much more than just a community mascot.

Len has been a driving force behind the train since the idea for it first came up in the late 1990s.

It was around that time that Elmer Seedorf and Dan Olson put their heads together to come up with some sort of symbol for Perham, Len explained in an interview last week. They wanted something to represent the town; something that people would come to fondly recognize and enjoy seeing.

A train seemed like a natural fit for this role in Perham, Len said, given that, without the railroad, the town would not exist as we know it today. The city is even named after the first President of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Josiah Perham.

There were three different ideas for the design of the train, said Len, and it was taken apart and rebuilt more than once before it was done to satisfaction.

Perham Steel played a major role in its construction, as did the project's Director, Carl Anolara, and the Perham Rotary club. A number of others, including Len, who was already volunteering with the Turtle Races at the time, also had a hand in it.

"I heard about 'the dream of the train,'" he said, "and got involved."

On July 4, 1999, the Perham Express was introduced to the public in a special ceremony. It's been on the road every summer since.

The Perham Express takes people on tours of Perham, offers transportation across town during community events, gives rides to class reunion groups and wedding parties on request, and carries Miss Perham and Miss Heart of the Lakes through local parades. Their next gig is this weekend, during Harvest Fest. They'll also be a part of the Parade of Lights in November.

"It's a very integral part of what we do to promote Perham," said Dan Schroeder, executive director of the Perham Chamber.

The Chamber sponsors the train, paying for needed gas and repairs and arranging for volunteers to run and maintain it -- although Schroeder said he's never had a problem finding good volunteers, who tend to take care of things on their own: "I don't really have to worry about it at all. The volunteers are great."

Those volunteers include Len, who's been around since the beginning of the project, and his fellow driver Merle Thompson, who came aboard a couple of years ago.

"Merle's a fixer," said Len, and ever since Merle took over maintenance of the train, "it's running better and looking better than ever."

Other regular volunteers include Kermit Larsen and Jim Bistrum, the engineers and whistle blowers, and ticket agents Sue Kalinoski and Dawn Kiefer. Sue Vanwatermulen and Marge Johnson act as the conductors and tour guide narrators. Various others have helped out throughout the years, as well.

"It wouldn't be much without the whole crew," said Merle, adding that all the volunteers have really gone "above and beyond" in their efforts to make the train a fun and memorable experience for all.

"It's a good thing, and we're glad to be part of it," added Len.

Though it keeps them busy, especially in the summers, both Len and Merle said they had no plans to give it up. They love it too much. Meeting and joking around with all kinds of interesting people, they said, is their favorite part. But they also enjoy showing people around Perham, giving them a little history about the town and helping to represent the community.

They also like to toot the horn, which -- new this year -- is almost as loud as the real thing at 106 decibels (actual train horns reach 110 decibels).

"I eat, sleep and breathe this thing," said Len, laughing and pointing at the train. "You have a niche, you have something you enjoy doing, and you never want to quit it."

"Joking around with those kids during Turtle Races... that's what it's all about," said Merle with a smile.

Marie Nitke writes for the East Otter Tail Focus.