Hillcrest Farm trains continue to chug along

Owners Sean and Melissa Bautistas show no signs of slowing down in their tracks

Melissa Bautisa, owner of Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm - the oldest Christmas Tree Farm in the San Joaquin Valley. (Kenny Goodman)
Melissa Bautisa, owner of Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm - the oldest Christmas Tree Farm in the San Joaquin Valley. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published December 12, 2023  • 
2:00 pm

REEDLEY – In the heart of Hillcrest Farm’s picturesque landscape, Sean Bautista’s hidden passion for trains has blossomed into a remarkable miniature train empire that is approaching its 30th year in operation and now spans over one mile of track, shaping the destiny of a family farm.

“Who knew? My husband likes trains,” said Melissa Bautista, who possesses a talent for understatement. 

The Bautistas, Sean and Melissa, purchased Hillcrest Tree Farm in 1992. Sean’s hitherto unknown passion for trains did not manifest in the usual way. He didn’t set up a large sheet of plywood in the basement, lay down model train tracks, create a miniature town with trees, sport a train engineer’s cap and run Lionel or other model train sets to his heart’s content.

No – instead, the Bautistas built a fully functioning miniature train yard with over one mile of train track on their five-acre property, without possessing any knowledge of trains. Melissa said the only connection to trains occurred when Sean was three, when his brother received a Lionel train as a gift.

“He (Sean) took it all apart,” she said. “He had no idea how to put it back together.”

Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm signage along Reed Ave. (Kenny Goodman)

Hillcrest Farm is a Reedley attraction, with entertainment such as Pajama Nights, pumpkin patch activities and the last “cut-your-own Christmas tree” event in the area. Melissa said when they bought Hillcrest, there were 12 Christmas tree farms in Fresno and Tulare Counties. But growing trees is not a money maker.

“It’s hard to grow trees in our climate,” said Melissa. She estimated the farm sells about 1,000 trees during the season.

In the early days of the business’s start, not long after Melissa and Sean were married, the pair planned to move to Fresno from Dinuba. Melissa grew up in Dinuba; Sean basically grew up on Atwater Air Force Base.

“He was an Air Force brat,” she said.

Sean was a fighter pilot in Fresno with the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno. The couple purchased a lot at Sierra Sky Park. Sean commuted from Fresno to San Francisco to fly for United Airlines.

“He wanted to park his plane in the garage (at Sky Park),” said Melissa. “Get up in the morning, fly to San Francisco, do his job, and fly home.”

But then Hillcrest came up for sale and Sean wanted it. Melissa said he wanted the property because, unlike most of the land in the Valley, Hillcrest had terrain and a creek. She believed he was already planning what would later become the railroad.

FOAMERS

Melissa said Sean is not a foamer, which is an individual obsessed with trains. Sean’s desire to build a railroad on their property did not originate from any obsession with trains. She said many of the people who work on the trains at Hillcrest are foamers.

“They’ve been foamers all their lives,” she said.

Miniature trains are not cheap. Melissa said the trains that run at Hillcrest cost upwards of $500,000. The Bautistas build trains for companies – Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, San Francisco Zoo – and for individuals.

“But a lot of our customers are extremely wealthy foamers,” she said.

John Studden of Hillcrest Farms puts the finishing touches on one of the farm's multiple steam trains. (Kenny Goodman)

Melissa said the Hillcrest team built two steam engines for Francis Ford Coppola on his vineyards in Napa. The railroad is ready to go; Coppola is waiting approval from Napa County.

The Hillcrest team installed a railroad for former Pixar-head, John Lasseter. Unlike Coppola’s trains, Lasseter’s is a full-sized train. Melissa said this project was also in the wine country.

SEAN’S BACKGROUND

Sean taught himself about all things trains by watching videos. Melissa said Sean purchased a video that he and their son, who was six, watched so often that their son could quote the entire movie. In the video, fellow railroad builders like Sean mentioned Eric Thompson.

Thompson is a railroad consultant, specializing in maintenance of way – i.e., tracks and systems. He also built the miniature Redwood Valley Railway in a park in Berkeley. Sean sought out Thompson and told him he wanted to build a railroad.

“Yeah, you and a million other people,” was Thompson’s reply, according to Melissa. But the Bautistas were undeterred.

For his first train, Sean found a train for sale in a train magazine in a barn in Illinois. It was not an auspicious beginning.

“Sean said it looked like space junk that had reentered the atmosphere,” said Melissa. But it was a steam engine, which Sean wanted. They restored it. Melissa described the train as “gutless.” The train was too small. But restoring it set them on their way.

While the couple was hunting for their first train, they had been laying tracks at Hillcrest. Melissa said word quickly spread about what they were doing.

“It always happens,” she said. “When you have a railroad, this collection of people form around it. We called them the Hillcrest Gang.”

Locomotive #5 inside the train barn. (Kenny Goodman)

Not long after they restored the steam engine, the Bautistas received a call from a person who ran that train years before in a park in Illinois. The man wanted the train. The Hillcrest Gang told Sean to sell the train and build a better one.

“So, we started building stuff,” said Melissa.

FROM THE WHEELS UP

Operating a miniature train is a niche business. All the components must either be salvaged from other trains or manufactured. When people asked the Bautistas where they acquired their train cars or their train wheels, the couple said they made them. They made all of it.

“Every little thing,” said Melissa. Thompson and Redwood Valley Railway lent their advice and knowhow. By 2000, the Bautistas had hired fellow train enthusiasts from the Hillcrest Gang and were now in the business of manufacturing train components and then engines.

Hillcrest Farms owner Melissa Bautisa sits atop an old Steam Donkey, a steam-powered winch commonly used in logging, mining, maritime, and other industrial trades. (Kenny Goodman)

“One thing happened after another, and the next thing you know, we’re building locomotives for Disneyland,” said Melissa.

Hillcrest has two onsite workshops, one to build wheels and the other components required a metal foundry. The first foundry works for miniature trains was located in the smaller of the two shops. The Bautistas rented and then purchased a larger packing shed located on the property. They installed a larger foundry in this building. They work on full-size steam engines in this shop.

The couple purchased more property on the site to accommodate their expanding business and they now own 45 acres; and unsurprisingly, running the business does not come without a hefty price tag. Melissa said that while it is cheaper to build rather than purchase a train, the costs involved are extensive.

“We’re basically doing Pumpkin Patch, selling Christmas trees and selling parts,” Melissa said. “Anything we make goes back into our railroad.”

Inside the smaller workshop, workers tend to the miniature trains. The farm has eight full time employees. Roughly half of the shop is located about three feet below ground level. Trains are parked on rails. Hillcrest runs two trains for visitors to the farm. The farm also owns a diesel train that is being restored.

As for who their most challenging client has been thus far, the answer was a name many might be familiar with.

“It’s tough to work for Disneyland,” said Melissa, as she pointed to photographs of the first of three engines Hillcrest restored for the theme park. She said many Disney engineers came from Boeing, and they are very exact when it comes to specifications for their locomotives.

She described the first Disney project as “horrendously difficult.” So difficult, in fact, that when the Disney project manager broached the subject of a second project, Melissa threw up her hands.

Disney runs its trains constantly; so, Melissa said when they bring them to the shop, the machines are a mess and completely worn down. The trains are completely disassembled in the shop. She said Disney requires that every part is evaluated with an accompanying writeup.

“You figure about 1,000 parts,” she said. But any part that is defective must be made from scratch. “You can’t go buy these parts,” she added, which means they must make parts patterns and build them in the foundry, and have the wheels poured or a part is machined in the shop.

“It’s terribly expensive, because everything is expensive,” Melissa said. But Disney can afford it. She said there are no big foundries left for large jobs. If a job requires extensive product, Hillcrest must either acquire the materials from Mexico or China.

As a former pilot, Sean wanted a ‘flyover’ to debut the first train Hillcrest restored for Disney. He wanted to take the train down G Street in Reedley because local businesses contributed to the restoration: upholsters, hardware merchants, lumber merchants and machinists. The idea was to place the locomotive on the back of a semi truck and drive it downtown.

“We asked someone, and they said, ‘Yeah, you can’t take a semi truck down Main Street in Reedley,’” Melissa said. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah?’”

Despite the doubts, the couple did it anyway. An employee downloaded the Disneyland Railroad narration and played it from a lowrider vehicle driving ahead of the semi truck.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone came out on G Street. Kids were running everywhere. We didn’t get in trouble.”

SKIDROW

After spending time with Melissa, it becomes apparent that nearly everything to do with Hillcrest has a story attached to it. This includes the rails, the custom railroad ties, the custom railroad spikes and even the pieces of machinery that dot the property.

Melissa pointed out a machine she called a donkey. A turn-of-the-century piece of equipment, consisting of a boiler, gear wheels, and, when operational, cables. Donkeys were used in lumber operations.

“They would park it where they were loading (trees),” she said. “They would run the cable down the hill to where they were cutting trees, cable it and drag it up, which causes skid rows. All the lumber guys would set up their tents and huts along the skid because they were temporary and they would move to another mountain, and it was pretty wild, I guess.”

Melissa pointed out a new track that extends over Wahtoke Creek, which runs through the property. The track extends to Reed Avenue. She also pointed out a large trellis Hillcrest built to span the creek.

Hillcrest’s Train barn and turn-table. (Kenny Goodman)

“It took a couple years to build,” she said. They are still waiting for the county to approve it.

She said she hopes they will be running trains on the new rail by next March.

Darren Fraser
Reporter