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North Vernon couple’s backyard opens to visitors

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Tom and Pat Rice have worked together for 40 years to preserve Jennings County history. When they want to remember what it was like when North Vernon was an active railroad town, all they have to do is look in their backyard garden.

A model railroad line runs through it, just like the B&O and Pennsylvania Rail lines that once ran through the heart of the county.

Their unique garden will be on display Saturday and June 29 during the Town & Country Home & Gardens Tour.

Passion for history

Both lifelong residents of Jennings County, the Rices share a lively interest in history. They began preserving county history in 1974.

“Everyone was getting ready for the big national 1976 bicentennial celebration, so we joined the (Jennings County) Historical Society to help with that, and it just kept going from there,” said Tom Rice, the county historian.

Sometimes that history passion is personal. The Rices live in the house where Pat Rice and her father grew up.

“Someone from the family has owned this house since 1908. We bought it from the estate in 1993 and moved in 1994,” Pat Rice said.

Tom Rice worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation and Pat Rice helped at a sporting goods store owned by her husband’s family while they raised their family and maintained and restored the old homestead, which was built in 1868.

“We are told that it was one of the early homes in Jennings County, and there was no other houses around it when it was first built. Now it is completely surrounded by other houses and is in the middle of North Vernon,” Tom Rice said.

Garden plans

Eventually, the Rices began working on the yard that surrounds the house.

“We wanted a garden, and I remembered that my dad had built a pond in the backyard but had filled it back in. We decided to dig it back up and make a pond surrounded by a garden. It was a lot of work, but it is self-maintaining now. We really enjoyed sitting out there and hearing the water and the frogs croak on quiet summer evenings,” Pat Rice said.

However, the couple’s three grandchildren also had an idea, one that has broken the silence of the backyard retreat and added a level of excitement to the home on a corner of College Street. Brook, Carmen and Luke Rice decided that their grandfather should build a model railroad in his yard like the one they saw at the Epcot Center at Disney World.

“They kept after me, and I gave in,” Tom Rice said, smiling.

He already was involved with compiling a book about the history of railroads in Jennings County and decided his backyard model railroad would represent the days when North Vernon was a very active railroad town.

Tour time

It took Tom Rice three years, but the first two phases of the backyard salute to county railroad history are ready for the garden tour. Only the Rices’ garden area will be featured.

The Town & Country Home & Gardens Tour is sponsored by the Jennings County Historical Society as a fundraiser to maintain its museum and other activities.

Pat Rice is vice president of the society. Tom Rice donates all profits from his recently completed book, “The Railroad News: Jennings County Indiana,” and four previous books about county history to the historical society.

While Tom Rice put the final touches on his trains, Pat Rice was busy feeding the fish and frogs in the pond and grooming the many plants and trees.

“I want to add a section for the New York Central. They used to run through here, too. I’ll get to that eventually,” Tom Rice said, as he operated the controls to the 16-pound engine moving effortlessly about the garden.

When the engine’s whistle sounded, he smiled.

“I searched around for a whistle that sounded just right, then I added it to the car,” he said. “That’s just the way I remembered them sounding when they came through town.”

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