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More Than a Train, a Trackless Train!
Kaw Valley Express Re-energizes Childhood Dream

By Tom Parker

The Kaw Valley Express can be hired by calling John or Vivian Vinsonhaler at 785-456-1870 or 785-844-1870, or by e-mail at javsv(at)wamego.net. Reservations are recommended. And remember: you’re never too old to ride the train.

As a young boy, John Vinsonhaler would stand beside the singing tracks of the Rock Island Railroad in Smith Center to watch one of its most famous trains pass through. It was the Rocky Mountain Rocket, a streamliner passenger train on a 19.5-hour run from Chicago to Denver and on down to Colorado Springs, pulled by a pug-nosed scarlet engine built for power and speed. The sight never failed to move him. It was the genesis of his interest in railways, an interest that took a backseat to the necessities of a career and raising a family, the mundane things people do when dreams can’t put food on the table.

Decades later, retired, depressed, tired of sitting around the house with nothing to do, disabled from Parkinson's disease—a degenerative disruption of the central nervous system—Vinsonhaler decided he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and quit. So with a nod toward that boy standing beside the tracks in his hometown, he went out and bought his own train.

Admittedly it wasn’t on the scale of the Rock Island Rockets, but it wasn’t one of those modern fiberglass toys you see at carnivals, either. His body might be failing but his pride was intact, and he had his own standards to uphold.

“I didn’t want a lawnmower-powered train,” he says. “I wanted something with history and character.”

Vinsonhaler and his train
John Vinsonhaler and his Kaw Valley Express (photo courtesy of Vinsonhaler)

He found it in Saltillo, Miss. He and his wife Vivian left Smith Center on a Friday evening and returned two days later in time for his wife to go back to work on Monday morning. On his flatbed trailer was a 1955 International Cub Low Boy tractor modified by International to resemble a locomotive. It was powered by a 4-cycle gasoline Continental engine with a top speed of around three miles per hour. Four passenger cars were included, each weighing 400 pounds. The train would carry 16 adults or 24 children or any combination thereof. He christened it the Kaw Valley Express.

And then one of those odd things happened where something turns into something else, like ancient alchemists believing the right formula would convert base metals into gold. His health wasn’t any better but his wife commented that it was like a switch had been flipped and a whole new John Vinsonhaler had appeared.

“That’s what the train does for me,” he says. “It was the same way we moved down here (to Belvue) with the grand kids. She said that was a big change—bigger than the train. She said I made another step. Well, it gives some purpose. Before that I didn’t feel like I was worth anything.”

Vinsonhaler was diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago, when he was 49 years old. He had worked as a tire salesman in Smith Center and for a spell as a manager overseeing sales reps at Payless Cashway in Topeka. But nothing prepared him for the debilitating effects of the disease. His careers did, however, lay some groundwork for his new venture, that of marketing the Kaw Valley Express.

“When I was in sales, I hated cold calls,” he says. “I still do, but it comes in handy now.”

(photo courtesy of Vinsonhaler)
(photo courtesy of Vinsonhaler)

Vinsonhaler began his venture by calling festival and event planners around the area. His selling point: train for hire, will travel.

Unlike the Rock Island Rocket, the Kaw Valley Express is what’s known as a “trackless train.” Rather than steel wheels affixed to steel rails, it rolls on rubber tires and can operate on any smooth surface, including grass. Each car has a canopy so rain is no problem. And there’s something about a train that appeals to kids of all ages. When his three-year-old grandson, Jimmy, first saw the train on Vinsonhaler’s flatbed, he scrambled onto the trailer and dashed into the engineer’s seat with a squeal of “Grandpa, you got a train!” To children trains are exotic and different enough to be exciting, and to adults they’re reminders of a world slower-paced and less stressful than today’s uncertain climate. And, as Vinsonhaler wrote in his promotional brochure, “You’re never too old to ride the train.” Or want to, for that matter.

The Kaw Valley Express had its debut last August at the Pottawatomie County Fair in Onaga. Since then, it has chugged its way through Abilene, Ottawa, Clay Center, Ellsworth, Manhattan, Paxico and Ogden. Closer to home, Wamego’s Oztoberfest really impressed Vinsonhaler. It was “fantastic,” he says.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of people. And the organizers were so wonderful to us,” he says. “They had the streets blocked off but they left a spot open for me to snake through, and if there was a line going into the theater they would come out and tell people to make a hole for the train to go through. They were amazing to work with.”

Last Christmas the train also won first place in a float sponsored by the Kaw State Bank—somewhat of a namesake for the train, Vinsonhaler says, considered they floated the loan for its purchase.

Spring events include an Easter festival in Clay Center and the annual Tulip Festival in Wamego, among others.

“It’s been a big health benefit,” he says. “As long as I can get enough to keep the banker happy and to pay the insurance, which is ridiculous, that’s all I care about. The rest of it is an opportunity to give something back.

“It’s uplifting,” he adds. “It makes you see the good side of life. Mostly, it lightens the load. It makes me think back when I was a kid.”

Vinsonhaler credits the train for giving him a new lease on life, but he never loses sight of the real transforming power of family. Moving to Belvue to be closer to his grandchildren has been a blessing, and he intends to spend more time with them. His son, Jason, and daughter-in-law, Melissa, live near Wamego with their two children, Mike, 1, and Jimmy, 3. Eventually, the Kaw Valley Express will become theirs, he says.

But it’s his wife that he gives the most credit to. Vivian stood by him throughout his illness, he says, making it all possible.

“She’s my conductor,” he says. “Without her, this train this train couldn’t run.”

 

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Last Updated April 6, 2009->->->
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