South Charlotte

Matthews museum is all aboard for Johnson family’s train collection

The Town of Matthews owes much of its history to the railroad. In 1874, The Central Carolina Railway Company laid the rails that led to development of the town, which took the name of a railroad director named Edward Watson Matthews.

About 50 years later, and almost 600 miles away in Hazelton, Pa., a young boy named Roy E. Johnson was given his first model train set, which he treasured for the next 50 years before passing it on to his son.

This holiday season, the Matthews Heritage Museum is serving as a junction for Matthews’ railroad history and the Johnson family’s train collection. A sampling of four generations of model trains was loaned to the museum by Johnson’s son, Roy W. Johnson and his wife, Diana, who live off Carmel Road in south Charlotte.

The “Trains Under the Tree” exhibit gained steam in late November and will continue to be on display through Jan. 21. Enclosed in glass cases are 32 items, including train engines, cars, and accessories, ranging in time from the 1920s through the current decade.

“We’re certainly pleased to have the opportunity and share the hobby with other folks and hope to attract a few people to it,” said Roy Johnson, 71. “Maybe it will rekindle people’s interest in trains and maybe some of their children and grandchildren.”

Even though Matthews’ population stayed steadily below 500 people through the 1940s, the railroad continued to shape the town’s culture and daily life.

Train was the major mode of transportation for people traveling into Charlotte. A passenger train continued to run from Matthews to Charlotte through the 1960s.

According to museum volunteer Lanell Owenby, trains provided a key ingredient to the drink of choice for patrons of the popular Matthews Drug Co. The trains were responsible for transporting ice from northern states to chill their Coca-Colas.

The railroad’s major contribution to industry was hauling the cotton grown on Matthews’s modest-sized farms. The revered Funderburk and Renfrow families both had commercial cotton gins in town.

“More importantly, it connected Matthews to the surrounding areas because of shipping cotton by rail,” said Barbara Taylor, the Heritage Museum’s director. “King cotton was the cash crop.”

Taylor has been friends with Roy and Diana Johnson for longer than 30 years. She is aware of Roy’s extensive model train collection and asked him to lend some items for display at the museum.

The historic Massey-Clark House, built in 1880 and that houses the Museum, does not have a room large enough to handle a functioning model train display. But the Johnson home does. About 12 years ago, the Johnsons converted some living room space for Roy’s 10-foot by 14-foot layout.

Roy received his first model train when he was a boy in 1948. Though he’s collected items on his own, he also added the collections of his father and an uncle on his mother’s side.

The Johnsons’ son, Roy W. Johnson II, who lives in Fort Mill, and his sons have also collected and displayed model trains.

Roy and Diana’s display is set up year-round. The O-scale arrangement is large enough to support dual oval tracks, one occupied by a modern diesel engine and the other by a retro steam engine which can blow real smoke.

Around the holidays, the Johnsons invite relatives, friends, and neighbors in to their home to enjoy to nostalgia. The loan to the Museum is the first time the Johnsons have had any of their items displayed outside their home.

Once the model train exhibit concludes, the museum will begin preparations for its next exhibition which will honor the American Red Cross’ 100th anniversary. It runs from Feb. 4 through June. 24.

The Matthews American Red Cross Chapter was established in 1937. If you have a story of how the local chapter helped you or someone you know, Barbara Taylor would like to hear from you.

Joe Habina is a freelance writer:

Want to go?

What: Matthews Heritage Museum

Where: 232 N. Trade St., Matthews

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Info: 704-708-4996,