MILWAUKEE -- For more than 85 years, a local family has been known for manufacturing and distributing model trains. Four generations and millions of pieces later, the business keeps on rolling. Brian Kramp spent the morning at Walthers Trains.
About Walther Model Railroading (website)
Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., was founded in Milwaukee in 1932 — but it really started on Christmas Day in 1899 when seven-year-old Bill Walthers found his first wind-up toy train waiting under the tree! Milwaukee was a hotbed of railroading and technology in the early years of the 20th century, and Bill made the switch to electric trains over the years. His standard-gauge attic layout became a test-bed for his ideas and inventions to improve operation, which he shared through how-to articles in early hobby magazines.
As letters arrived asking for advice, Bill self-published what may have been the hobby’s first how-to book, the Signal and Control Manual for Model Railroaders. But as hobby shops were unheard of, many folks were unable to purchase supplies locally and began writing to see if they could buy directly from Bill. The idea of turning his hobby into a business began to take shape, leading to the very first Walthers ad in the in the May 1932 issue of The Model Maker (forerunner of today’s Railroad Model Craftsman). Offering a 24-page catalog for 15¢ listing rail, couplers and electrical supplies, sales were over $500.00 for the first year, and the fledgling company was off to a strong start.
Sales boomed during those Depression years as folks sought low-cost ways to have fun at home. By 1937, operations had to move from the family home to larger quarters in the Erie Terminal Building, where all of the O Scale milled-wood parts, metal castings, decals and more were made and packaged in-house. Production soon ramped up with the introduction of the first HO Scale models, which were also featured in their own catalog that year.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair introduced thousands of people to the hobby through the biggest operating O Scale layout built to that time, which featured cars and locos supplied by Walthers. Success was soon overshadowed as WWII brought a halt to most model production. Walthers soldiered on making decals and what little else it could from non-essential materials. By 1943, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel - literally - in a series of famous ads explaining the difficulties obtaining supplies for the duration.