Everything’s on Track at Mr. Muffin’s Trains in Hamilton County
By the time he reached his early teens, Steve Nelson had already immersed himself in the world of model trains and railroading and was well on his way to a thorough understanding and appreciation of the collecting, construction, wiring and repair aspects of the hobby.
Nelson and his wife Liz both grew up in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis, and at the age of 13, he went to work at Ed Schock’s Toy and Hobby Shop in Broad Ripple. Finding himself amongst rows and racks of model trains and parts, he was intrigued by the hobby industry generally, and colorful model train setups specifically.
“I eventually went to college and was interested in business, and I started collecting trains in the late 1980s,” says Nelson, who has an engineering degree from Purdue University and a master’s degree in business from Indiana University. “I collected HO trains, which are the smaller ones, and in 2000 I switched to the O Gauge trains, which are the bigger ones, because of the electronics and the fact that with getting older it’s easier to see the bigger stuff.”
Nelson’s children suggested he use a name other than his own when he first created an eBay profile for selling and buying trains and parts. Nelson had made up muffin-related stories to make his kids smile when they were small, and as a nod to those fond memories, he chose Mr. Muffin’s Trains for not only his eBay handle but also his subsequent business moniker.
Nelson’s own model train collection has grown to include more than 7,000 trains, and he says it’s one of the largest collections in the United States and the third-largest public display. It’s still a side hobby for Nelson, as he spends the majority of his professional time as a professor at Butler University and as part of the Master of Business Administration faculty with Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“I had a big layout at my house in Carmel we would open to the public, and then we rented an 1,800-square-foot building in Carmel nine years ago,” Nelson says. “We ran the trains for free, and it was great but it was a little tight in there.”
After transitioning to a bigger, 4,000-square-foot space in Carmel to show his trains to the public on Saturdays for free, Nelson outgrew that location as well.
“It became a little expensive to rent that space, so we began to sell trains and became an online retailer to pay for the layout,” Nelson explains. “My wife likes to say we became reluctant retailers. The business grew and grew.”
Five years ago Nelson and Liz relocated once again, and Atlanta, Indiana, became home to the Nelson’s collection display, retail shop and inventory storage space.
Nelson says his business has become a top U.S. retail shop, and his son Jeff and Jeff’s wife now help run the retail operation. The business sells model trains of various scales as well as accessories and offers products from manufacturers like Atlas, Lionel and MTH Electric Trains. All three companies now make model train and engine products specifically for Nelson.
In October, Nelson’s business bought out a Pennsylvania-based retail hobby shop that was closing, and moved its inventory to Atlanta.
“We’ve bought a couple manufacturing businesses that we’ve located here, and they serve the hobby,” Nelson says. “We’re continuing to look for additional related businesses that we can acquire, and we spend a lot of time helping other people with the hobby.”
Those interested can view Nelson’s own collection on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., during which time the trains are up and running. Nelson says his collection has become a weekly destination spot for hundreds of hobbyists in and out of the state.
“We have a lot of special-needs kids that come regularly, and I didn’t realize how attracted they would be and how much they’d enjoy it,” adds Nelson, who has more than 300 model train videos available on YouTube, and hosts Facebook Live broadcasts at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. “That’s really been a wonderful thing. I always tell people that if you’ve got a hobby that you know a lot about, and you’re willing to help other people with it, you can build a business around it and it doesn’t have to be your full-time job.”
The Mr. Muffin’s Trains retail shop is located at 177 West Main Street in Atlanta, Indiana, and guests can visit Steve Nelson’s display free of charge on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 165 East Main Street. For more information, call 765-292-2022 and visit mrmuffinstrains.com.