Chaffee man opens miniature train to public

Sunday, August 2, 2009
Bill Cannon drives a trainload of visitors Saturday around Cannon Park near Chaffee, Mo. (ERIN EASTON)

CHAFFEE, Mo. -- As children and their parents piled onto Bill Cannon's miniature train Saturday, Cannon stood by, smiling and waving them off for a mile-long ride through the woods.

Cannon and his family have a history and love riding the rails and working on trains. Now, Cannon, a retired engineer, and his son, Wade, a conductor for Amtrak, have decided to share their enthusiasm with Southeast Missouri families on a farm outside Chaffee.

The morning of opening day at Cannon Park was busy, Cannon said. Families began showing up at the farm at 9 a.m., ready to pet horses and miniature donkeys, have a picnic, jump in an inflatable house and, of course, take a train ride. Cannon was caught by surprise, as he had advertised his opening for 1 p.m.

The new family entertainment and birthday party venue has been years in the making. Cannon purchased the farm back in the 1980s and used it to raise miniature donkeys. Some time later, he went to an exotic animal auction, where a man who had just bought a train from the St. Louis Zoo was selling another smaller train. Cannon, one of the few people at the auction that rainy day, jumped at the chance to buy the small train for a good price and soon began laying a small circle of tracks through the woods on his farm.

"I had a stroke of craziness," Cannon said.

Bill Cannon sees a group off on a train ride Saturday around Cannon Park near Chaffee, Mo. (ERIN EASTON)

Over the years, Cannon and his son have expanded the tracks when they had extra time and money, working three to four months out of the year since the early 1990s. They sought out and purchased tracks over the Internet, traveling as far as Wisconsin to pick up materials. Adding bridges to the system would sometimes take four months.

"It's all work you have to do on the ground, on your knees," Cannon said. "It took so much time, but you can spend a million dollars overnight, or you can spend what you have at the time for 20 years. That's the only way we could do it."

Cannon said he and Wade enjoyed building the tracks just as much as they enjoy riding the train. He said he rides every day he can, even in the rain and in the cold when the temperature gets down to 20 degrees.

"If the rain isn't too hard, I take an umbrella," he said. "In the winter, I just wrap up and put on a big hood."

Cannon said he's been ready to share his enjoyment of the train and the farm for a while but decided he needed to get everything as ready as possible before opening to the public. Before opening, he added a heated and cooled building with bathrooms, also containing small rides for children and railroad memorabilia.

"Everyone who has come down says it's more than they expected. We want people to be able to come out here and enjoy it, and have their birthday parties or any other kind," Cannon said.

"We love to see them having a good time. It's about seeing the smiles on those little kids' faces," he said.

Today the park is open again from 1 to 4 p.m. for a free open house.

Cannon Park will be open to visitors and available for school trips and parties by appointment only, year-round. Cannon can be reached at 573-450-5901.

"If they call me, I'll be out here in 30 minutes as long as I'm nearby, any time that's convenient for people," he said.

Cannon said he wants to be able to share the experience with as many people as he can, so he has decided school groups can visit the park for free.

"As long as I can park them, I don't care how many come," Cannon said.

Pertinent address: Route A, Chaffee, MO

Directions to Cannon Park from Chaffee: follow Route A east one mile, turn right at signs.

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