Larry Morton pointed to a tiny pond beside the railroad tracks between Saluda and East Flat Rock, where an even tinier figure was perched on a rock.
"Right here I got a guy on a rock fishing and there's two little geese," he said. "Not one person in a thousand will notice but we wanted to make it as realistic as we can."
Morton and other dedicated craftsmen of the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club have taken detail to new heights at the Henderson County Heritage Museum, which debuts its new exhibit "The Golden Age of Henderson County — 1879-1929" on May 18.
The railroad is a big part of the Golden Age. The train made its way up the mountain from Melrose in the late 1870s. The opening of Hendersonville's train station in 1879 ignited a boom time for the town in the Blue Ridge Mountains that boasted clean air and cool summer nights that now be reached by passenger train.
The railroad diorama, a four-sided model depicting 15 miles of track from Melrose to Hendersonville, includes every stop along the way: Saluda, Zirconia, East Flat Rock and Hendersonville. Storyboards describe points of interest. Pushing a button lights up key points on the layout.
"Within each town we had several of the key pieces" representing the area, he said. "For instance, this is the hosiery mill that basically East Flat Rock was built around, and the Morgan Bros. sawmill right here."
He points to more commercial buildings, several of which still stand today.
"This was a bank and this was a pharmacy, this was a furniture store. There was a car repair shop, there was a filling station, there were a couple of retail shops," Morton said. "In each town, that's what we did."
Morton estimates that railroad club members have invested "tens of thousands of hours" on the layout since last summer, when museum officials approached them about the project.
"They came to us and said we want to give the train club a room in the Courthouse and we want you to do a whole train in this room about the railroad arriving in Henderson County," he said.
Asking a club of dedicated model railroad folk to make a whole rail line was like setting out the goats in clover. They ate it up.
"I love doing this," Morton said as he dipped a brush in red paint and worked on part of Seventh Avenue. "This is my hobby. I have a train layout at home. I've been actively involved down at the depot. Personally I felt it was a real honor for the museum to come to us and ask us to do this, and I thought, what a great promotion for our club, to have a sign up saying this thing was built by the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club."
The club's permanent exhibit is at the Seventh Avenue depot.
"Our club is doing this for free," he said. "The museum is paying for the materials but we're doing all our labor free for recognition and the publicity it will bring to our club. We survive down there on donations from visitors. We're trying to bring more people into the depot."
For each village or town, club members researched photos and other sources. Saluda was easy because the historic buildings on Main Street look much as they did in 1930s. And the model-makers were able to match the detail of Hendersonville's depot, which still stands.
"All of these street scenes were either kits that we had to put together or they were scratch built of styrene and wood," he said. "The Hendersonville depot, we have 100 hours on that building alone." Modeler Bill Raymond did that masterwork.
"In model railroading, one of the big tricks is you have to compress everything," Morton said. "This is 15 miles of track that we're representing here. In this particular scale of model trains you need 33 feet to do one mile." Put to scale, "we'd need the entire first floor of the Courthouse, so we had to crunch everything down."
The work is painstaking. Some of the cars and trucks, which range from 1900 to 1928 models, have as many as 15 parts and can take six to eight hours to make. Morton pointed to a car with spoke wheels. "Each wheel has five pieces," he said.
"The Golden Age" exhibit opens Saturday, May 18, with a presentation on the steps of the Historic Courthouse. In addition to the railroad diorama, the exhibit features "The Early Architects of Henderson County" — Erle Stillwell and Richard Sharp Smith; the 1900 General Store of M.M. Shepherd and other displays.
A retired network engineer with NCR in upstate New York, Morton may even get some time away from paint and glue and eye-straining bits of brass and wood.
"On Jan. 1 I said to my wife, 'I'm putting everything else on hold, and I'm going to do something for this project every single day until May 18, whether it be 15 minutes worth of work or all day,' and that's been my philosophy," he said. "I've had to cancel a lot of other things I would ordinarily do to do this, but I really don't mind because I'm having such a good time, to be honest with you."
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