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'He put his all into it': creator of the miniature world at Choo Choo Barn lives on through his art [photos]

The first step through the curtain into the main room at the Choo Choo Barn in Strasburg is a surprise to the senses.

Visitors enter into a 1,700-square-foot miniature landscape of green hills dotted with trees and rocks dipping into ponds with live fish and rising back up to cliff edges. Through it all, model trains weave in and out of the scenery that includes miniature people doing everyday things.

Every 10 minutes, the lights turn off, the stars come out and the scene gets an entirely new feel.

Linda Groff said people’s initial reactions to what they were seeing is what her husband loved the most.

“His favorite thing was to sit up in the control tower and watch people’s faces as they came through the curtain,” she said. “He said he wished he could take a picture of everybody.”

Tom Groff, who built the miniature town, died Nov. 11 of lung cancer, but the world he created lives on.

Linda, who owned the Choo Choo Barn with her husband, and their daughter Kristi Largoza, who manages the operation, remembered him Friday, along with dozens of people who through social media offered condolences and recalled special memories.

‘Your legacy is secure’

“A friend, a boss, a father and an exceptional man. You will be missed but your legacy is secure .... ,” Bruce Kerr wrote on the Choo Choo Barns Facebook page in a post announcing Tom’s death.

Kerr’s comment was just one of more than 300 left in the post.

“The world has lost a special person today. He made everyone’s life that met him or visited the Choo Choo Barn a [sic] more special. He will always be our friend,” Lee French wrote.

Martin A. Furrow Jr. also shared his condolences.

“... the Choo Choo barn brought many good memories for me as kid with my parents and grandparents ... his work brought us many smiles ... prayers for family and coworkers,” he wrote.

Attention to detail

Tom had curated the display for more than 40 years, adding pieces of his family and local history in every section.

In 1961, his father, George Groff, moved a small miniature layout he built in his basement to a barn in town and called it the “Choo Choo Barn.”

Tom and Linda took over the business in 1979.

“I don’t think (Tom) realized what he was capable of,” Linda said.

He wasn’t a trained engineer, architect, carpenter or electrician, said Linda and Kristi said, standing next to his creations. It was all a labor of love.

Linda said he was obsessed with every single detail.

“If it wasn’t to scale, it’s not going on (the layout),” she said.

Choo Choo Barn 2.jpg

A Turkey Hill market is in the layout at the Choo Choo Barn and pictured after the owner, Thomas Groff died Monday, with his employees and family continuing to run the business on Friday, November 15, 2019.

A Turkey Hill, complete with a canopy and the actual paint used at the gas stations, took Thomas 120 hours to complete, Kristi said.

“They brought him the plans for a real Turkey Hill and he just scaled it back,” she said.

“But the Strasburg Railroad building, I’ll still never understand this,” she said. “He had a 12-inch ruler and he went up and stood in front of their station, held the ruler up and went back and designed it in his workshop.”

‘He put his all into it’

He had a natural ability, Linda and Kristi said. He knew what he wanted to build and he worked on it until he got it right — even if it took until the early morning hours, day after day, they said.

In 2005, Thomas started giving passes for the students who attended the Strasburg Railroad Museum’s summer camp to come to the Choo Choo Barn where he would personally guide and teach them, said Patrick Morrison, director of the museum.

“He put his all into it,” Morrison said. “It brought out that youthful excitement and joy to share his hobby and his interest with the kids.”

He will be missed

When he was diagnosed with cancer, at his wife’s suggestion, Tom started training Michael White, the train shop manager, on how to maintain the intricate layout.

He also started showing Linda how to manage all aspects of the business.

For the past year, Tom hadn’t worked on the layout, Kristi said.

The Choo Choo Barn and Train Shop staff and the family have been keeping everything together and running eight hours a day, seven days a week.

A staple in the community, Tom will be missed, Morrison said.

“It’s going to be very hard to imagine a world where someone like Tom is not with us,” he said.