Wheels are his favorite
While most 61-year-old grandfathers might whip out a picture of their grand kids to show off, Lee Holbold pulls out his wallet and with it, a picture of his green, prize-winning 1955 GMC pick-up.
“I don’t have a wife,” he jokes as he discusses why he loves his truck so much.
It’s not just the truck he loves, though. Holbold, a grandfather of five and a restoration specialist at the Nevada Railroad Museum, adores all things mechanical from motorcycles to locomotives.
He works with locomotives, rebuilds classic automobiles and drives a Harley, which is “just class,” he said. Somewhere in his collection he has a Chevy Tahoe that he drives to work. To contrast his cherry GMC, he has a matching 1954 GMC he keeps as a “true classic” in its original, rusty condition.
But he reserves his greatest excitement of all things mechanical for the locomotives with which he spends his days.
Called Hobo — a lazy pronunciation of his German last name — by his friends, Holbold spends his working time painstakingly repairing pieces of Nevada’s railroad history. Right now, he is preparing mahogany panels to fit around windows of the V&T McKeen dining car. On special days, almost exclusively the Fourth of July, he fires up one of his favorite modes of transportation, the Inyo, an 1875 Baldwin locomotive that he calls the “crown jewel of the collection.”
“The sound, the smoke, the whistle — the locomotive has life to it,” he said. “There’s just an excitement about it. It’s dirty and hot. It’s a lot of work to keep them operating. You sit in the seat behind the throttle and feel the power and feel the steam and look out and see those wheels turning … it’s just exhilarating. It gives you a thrill. I don’t know a man who wouldn’t like to pull the throttle.
“I love to see the kids get excited,” he said. “Maybe one day they’ll take over my job.”
Holbold moved to Carson City in 1982, fleeing the smog and rampant growth of Los Angeles. He grew up in the L.A. area during World War II and remembers just enough about the war to know beef was so scarce, his mother cooked her family horse meat. After he graduated from high school in 1958, he joined the U.S. Navy to avoid being drafted into the U.S. Army. Holbold was honorably discharged after three years in the South Pacific and just missed being sent to Vietnam.
After his tour in the Navy, he returned home and followed in his father’s footsteps to become a baker. He and his first wife had a son and a daughter. He worked in a bakery for around 15 years before leaving to open a bar called Hobo’s Peanut House.
But dealing with drunks, living in a smoke-filled room and breaking up fights didn’t appeal to him. Add to it a robbery at gunpoint, and after two years he sold the bar and returned to work in the bakery. He and his second wife discovered Lake Tahoe in 1982, and decided Carson City would be the perfect place to escape to. An antique lover, he opened Hobo’s Antiques when he moved to Carson. But when he found he was actually losing all his “good stuff,” he closed the shop and found a job at a warehouse. Among the items in his collection of advertising signs, clocks and furniture were toy trains. So when he started hearing the sounds of real locomotives, the mechanic in him couldn’t resist wandering to the museum.
“To see these behemoths, to hear the sounds just intrigued me,” he said.
A history buff, Holbold started volunteering at the railroad museum in 1987, and soon was allowed to fire up the locomotives and engineer them around the museum’s small line of track. The state had a contractor working on the restoration, but the group left, and one of their employees, Chris de Witt, took over the shop in 1989 and brought Holbold along with him. Eventually, the state decided to make them state employees.
“I feel like I’m doing something,” the said. “You can see the results of your work, it’s not boring and it’s something different every day.”