In 1969 a group headed by Cowen’s grandson-in-law leased the Lionel brand name to General Mills, which went on to produce a new generation of trains, many of which replicated older ones. Richard Kughn, a wealthy businessman and longtime toy-train collector, purchased the old and new Lionel tooling along with rights to the brand in 1985. A decade later the rock singer Neil Young, a train buff who had helped Kughn develop a remote-control system, teamed up with an investment firm and bought the company. Through it all—even after a major lawsuit forced the organization to file for bankruptcy protection in 2004—Lionel trains have kept chugging out of factories in Michigan or Mexico or Korea. The company now offers a vast array of equipment and remains a leader in a field where sound effects are digital and remote controllers wireless. Some say the market has changed in that a preponderance of today’s toy train enthusiasts are adults. But has it really? An enormous number of those buyers are simply continuing a passion that began decades ago when they were kids who wanted Lionels for Christmas.

David Lander writes the column “ History Now: The Buyable Past” for American Heritage .

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