Three men with a love for model trains have brought a colorful period of North Vernon’s railroad history to life.
North Vernon Mayor Mike Ochs, optometrist Dr. Bill Burnett and retired model designer Walter Gerth have completed a model train display that captures the life and times of North Vernon during the 1960s.
The completed 4-foot by 8-foot display now is open to the public in the main entry of North Vernon City Hall in the Carnegie Government Center.
Featuring four model trains that run on tracks around and through a scale model of downtown North Vernon, the display is complete with exact replicas of 20 buildings standing during the 1960s era. Scenes of normal life in a busy railroad town are recreated throughout the display. More than 110 toy people, 40 miniature automobiles and four dogs are placed along the streets and railroad tracks.
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“They did all the work. It’s always been a dream of mine to recreate and preserve that era of our history in a miniature train display, but it was Doc Burnett and Walt that made that dream happen,” Ochs said.
The five-month-long project began soon after Ochs started his term as mayor in January. He found several boxes of railroad cars and engines packed away in a closet and decided it was time to make his dream come true.
Remembering that Burnett was a long-time model-train hobbyist, Ochs called Barnett and asked him if it would be practical to create a miniature model of the town often called the “City of Railroads.”
Thrilled at the idea of creating a replica, Barnett called Gerth, who had previously spent 12 years creating model replicas for the Overland Toy Company. Gerth also liked the idea and the two men set about creating the replica of the town.
“I jumped at the idea. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun. And, it was a lot of fun,” Gerth said.
It was also a lot of work.
“They didn’t just make buildings that looked like the buildings that stood along the railroad tracks then, or the ones that are still standing today. They made exact scale models,” said Ochs.
“People probably thought we were insane when they saw us climbing over buildings with our tape measures,” said Burnett.
After either measuring existing buildings or getting specific measurements from official records, all measurements had to be mathematically converted down to scale size.
“I let Doc handle that part,” said Gerth, who built all the replicas of the buildings in the display.
Agreeing on the scale model size, Gerth concentrated on constructing the replicas of the town’s buildings while Barnett concentrated on making sure the model trains were accurate and functional.
Burnett estimated that he spent more than 1,000 hours making the display, and Gerth said he spent at least 40 hours every week for most of the five months they spent working on the project.
The project brought back memories of yesteryear, Barnett said, pointing to a row of miniature autos sitting in the parking lot near one of the depot buildings.
“I remember sitting right there with my mom waiting for my dad to get off work. He worked for the B&O. He was the fireman on the last B&O passenger train that came through North Vernon,” Barnett said.
Ochs happily watched the miniature train move along the railroad tracks, winding around the three train depot buildings sitting in the center of the model town.
“They let their imagination go and they created a masterpiece. They have given an important part of this town’s history back to the town,” Ochs said.