A miniature flashback

Published 6:20 pm Friday, September 3, 2010

Model train brings 1907 Suffolk to life

While men in straw hats tend to their cotton and peanut crops, ladies in long dresses hang out the laundry they just scrubbed clean.

Down at the port on the Nansemond River, men load lumber from the Great Dismal Swamp onto boats, as several deer look on from the nearby woods.

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A group of hobos camps out under the Kingsboro Bridge, while a burial service goes dreadfully awry in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

It’s a Monday in Suffolk, Va. The year: 1907. But unlike the real Suffolk more than 100 years ago, this one requires more than two tons of lumber and other material, 300 feet of model train tracks, and more than a mile and a half of wiring to make it come alive.

The model train at the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum celebrated its 10th birthday on June 7 this year. That is the day in 2000 when a group of dozens of volunteers began constructing the elaborate model, which would not be completed until more than three years later.

Those who were the most involved in the project say they didn’t realize how much work it would be, but are glad they did it.

“Crazy me, I was the one that raised my hand,” said Norm Garner, the chairman of the intricate construction project.

Garner was among those in a meeting of the Tidewater Division of the National Model Railroaders Association when the late James McLemore came on behalf of the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society to ask if they would take on the project. A professional railroad modeling company had requested $60,000 to start the project. The hobbyist recruits were given a total budget of $3,000.

The first step in the planning process was acquiring blueprints and maps of old-time Suffolk. The historical society picked the year 1907 because of the existence of a large poster, labeled 1907, with an aerial view of the town and sketches of dozens of prominent buildings as they appeared at the time. Also, in 1907, six railroads — Atlantic Coastline, Southern, Norfolk Southern, Tidewater, Virginian and Seaboard — ran through Suffolk.

Next, the team made blueprints of how the model should look, working closely with the historical society to whittle the content down to a manageable level. The scope of the initial plans would have required expanding the historic train station, Garner said. The model was planned for HO scale, 1/87 life size, because anything larger would have been unworkable, he said.

Finally, the team got down to construction. Bill Fay, the electrician on the job, used about a ton of wood to create the infrastructure for the model and strung more than a mile of wiring to run the trains — a job that took about six weeks.

“We had a lot of fun,” Fay said. “We spent many an hour down there.”

Once the base was built and the wire run, the tracks were laid and the model began to take shape. McLemore painted trees on the back wall for a backdrop, and construction began on dozens of buildings, two boats, several bridges and one tunnel. The tunnel, Garner says, is not historically correct, but they needed to make the train track a complete circuit so that the train could be set up and allowed to run on its own.

Many of the smaller buildings were constructed by McLemore, Garner said. Two prominent buildings, however, were made by John “J.J.” Johnson, and netted prestigious first-place awards for off-line structures from national model railroad conferences.

Johnson constructed replicas of Riddick’s Folly and the Nansemond County Courthouse, which took him a total of about nine months to complete.

“Norm asked me to make these two buildings,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’”

Johnson did more than just “give it a try,” though. He took hundreds of photos of the buildings, and noted meticulous measurements — even measuring the width of the doorknobs and climbing onto the roofs for photographs.

Riddick’s Folly alone contains 2,168 individual pieces, including 98 shutters, 49 windows that Johnson customized from a purchased window pattern, and a doorknob smaller than the head of a pin.

The courthouse, at only 800-900 pieces, is less intricate. It includes fluted columns made of wood and about 70 pieces in the front door area alone.

“I’m still amazed I finished it,” Johnson said. He still has the county clerk’s office, which is currently represented on the model by a propped-up photograph, on his to-do list.

“Maybe someday I’ll build that,” Johnson said, acknowledging that the uniqueness of Suffolk architecture and the team’s tight budget meant they had to make everything from scratch. “You can buy horses, and buggies. You can’t buy the courthouse or Riddick’s Folly, though.”

Garner agreed.

“We couldn’t go to a hobby shop and pull everything off the shelf,” he said. “Everything had to be scratch-built.”

After the model’s main buildings were in place, the details were filled in — ladies washing clothes (Monday was laundry day 100 years ago); a hobo camp under a bridge, with a campfire; a funeral mishap in Cedar Hill Cemetery, with the coffin falling out of the back of an old-fashioned hearse; deer among the hundreds of trees; crops being gathered on the outskirts of town.

When the model was completed in November 2003, ownership was transferred to the historical society, and it was none too early for those who worked on it tirelessly for three years.

“After you work on a project this long, you get burned out,” Garner said. Even so, he still has a list of things he wants to add, like a four-bay engine house and turntable.

These days, the model brings delight to hundreds of visitors to the train station annually. Volunteers stop by occasionally to dust the buildings, clean oil off the tracks, clear cobwebs and switch the trains around for a different look. Train station staff can set the train up, set its speed with the control panel and let it run, much to the enjoyment of visitors young and old.

Sue Woodward, current president of the historical society, said she initially was overwhelmed by how much time and space the model was taking. Now, however, the historical society realizes its value.

“It turns out to be the best teaching tool in the house, really,” said Sue Woodward, current president of the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society. “It’s only a sliver of Suffolk, but it tells a lot about Suffolk 100 years ago.”