Frank Field Jr. retired years ago as a mechanical engineer with the Long Island Rail Road but a peek at his Greenport backyard gave passersby a clue that while his time at the LIRR had ended, his love of trains remained.
For decades, Field entertained train lovers of all ages — and occasionally jolted his then-teenage children from sleep — with the Peconic County Miniature Rail Road, which he built on his 2.5 acre property and opened to the public to ride in 1985.
"I used to tell people I hated that train in the backyard because he would wake me up Saturday mornings as a teenager. I wanted to sleep in," said Mary Anne Polkiewicz, 60, one of Field's three daughters. "Once I had kids, I really had an appreciation for it — my children loved it. My kids got to drive it. He would take it out just for them."
Field, 88, died Sunday at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital from complications of COVID-19, said Polkiewicz, of Laurel, Maryland.
Her father was beloved by his family and Long Islanders alike for building the unlikely amusement off a dirt road near Webb Street, Polkiewicz said. Creating lifetime memories aboard the mini red-and-black rail cars that traveled along a 1-mile route is what she'll remember most about her father, Polkiewicz said.
The village's hidden jewel closed in 2012 because Field said he no longer had the energy to oversee it.
His family said Field was first drawn to miniature trains in 1953 after seeing one at an amusement park. Field vowed he would own one. He bought a train through a trade magazine in the 1980s. Before opening the park to the public, he had an engine, a flat car and a caboose. Eventually he allowed riders on once a week for no fee except a voluntary donation to a local hospital.
Another of Field’s daughters, Michelle Lang, 61, of Loveland, Ohio, said her dad doted on her two children, who both cherished his trains. The family’s backyard railroad, which included memorabilia such as lights, signs, miniature buildings and a bridge, made her father’s name resonate locally.
"I thought it was such a cool thing to hear other people talk about their experiences, their joy, and how much he gave to them," Lang said.
Field was born in the Bronx in 1932, relatives said. He graduated from Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, and earned a mechanical engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, his family said.
He was later drafted into the Army and served two years at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland.
He joined the LIRR in 1970, according to family.
Polkiewicz, who now works for the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C., said she followed in her father’s path, and couldn’t avoid the impact of the rails, even if she wanted to.
"We were like three blocks from the Long Island Rail Road station in Bellerose," she said. "The freight trains, the diesels, would come through and shake the house."
Although the real-life railroad is where he made a living, the miniature rails in Greenport captured Field's heart and mind, relatives said. He tinkered on his backyard masterpiece for decades, creating a winding track, and building it so two trains could run simultaneously during the 10-minute excursion.
Greenport Mayor George Hubbard said that image is what he’ll always remember.
"You would see people you know going the opposite way," Hubbard said. "It was a thrill for everybody, young and old."
The village’s Rotary Club years ago pitched building a new railroad to replace Field’s creation on the edge of village property by Moores Lane. Newsday reported in 2017, the proposal would cost about $300,000. The Rotary Club has now raised more than half, Hubbard said. The plan will be greenlit as soon as it's approved by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, Hubbard said.
Representatives of the Greenport Rotary Club could not immediately be reached for comment.
Field is survived by his wife, Ruth Vaughan Nelson of Greenport; sister, Mary Brownell and her husband, Charles, of San Antonio; daughter Michelle Lang and her husband, Scott, of Loveland, Ohio, and their children Allison and Brian; daughter; Mary Anne Polkiewicz and her husband Robert, of Laurel, Maryland, and their children, Steven and Magdalen; daughter, Peggy Field, and her husband, Kevin Jones, of Norwell, Massachusetts, and their children, Tim, Meredith and Emily.
No funeral arrangements have been made yet.