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Armstrong creates intricate train setup with holiday theme
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Ward Armstrong has spent more than a decade building this model train display. He controls it all from a panel on the side. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

After a decade of detailed and dedicated work, Ward Armstrong's miniature masterpiece is complete.

Armstrong, an attorney who represents the 10th District in the Virginia House of Delegates, said he has only two to three hours a month to spare for his hobby, model trains. For that reason, it has taken him 12 years to complete the snow village at his home in Hunt Country Farms.

"This is the absolute limit of my carpentry skills," Armstrong said of the vast wooden frame that holds a tiny winter wonderland filled with trains, houses, vehicles and snow.

Armstrong said he built the table, which is wider and taller than a pool table, with only a carpenter saw and a straight edge. He can direct the trains and village of collectible houses, churches, stores and other items through an intricate set of switches and buttons he wired himself.

The scene itself has a small village in the center, with train tracks running around it. All of the houses are decorated with Christmas wreaths and lights. Armstrong said he decided to have a Christmas theme for the village so that his two daughters would be more interested.

"They love that it is always Christmas in the basement," he said.

When he was a child, his father also had a train layout in their basement, Armstrong said. His layout is based on his father's, but Armstrong's is much larger than the original.

Armstrong said there were model trains in his house even before he was born, and he often received model train cars and accessories for Christmas, some of which are in his current display. The trains Armstrong grew up with were American Flyer, a brand that later went out of business and was purchased by its competition, Lionel, he said.

"American Flyer was always the best," he said.

Lionel continued to make replicas of American Flyer trains, and Armstrong said his snow village is a mixture of original American Flyer pieces and American Flyer replicas made by Lionel after they purchased the company.

There are five trains in the display, and four can run at the same time, he said.

"I try not to crash them," he said. "When I was younger, crashing them was fun, but now I realize it would destroy the paint."

All the scenery was built in his studio, which resembles an elf's workshop. Rows of drawers housing train pieces and bits of miniature scenery line the wall behind a desk. There is a bottle filled with "snow" to blanket the snow village, and Armstrong has the rubber molds he used to cast the mountains and tunnels through which the trains travel.

Several wooden cases with glass doors hang on the walls of Armstrong's studio. They hold collectible and antique train models he has collected throughout the years. He pointed to one model train he purchased from the antique mall in Martinsville just two weeks before it burned down.

Armstrong explained that model trains can be divided into two categories: pre-war and post-war. He said that during World War II, model trains were not made, but after the war the companies began to manufacture them again. He said his collection is all post-war.

Although some of the modern parts of Armstrong's completed display are electric, many of the older pieces are purely mechanical. He said his oldest mechanical piece is a miniature log lift from 1948.

"It's amazing that so many of these vintage accessories still work," he said.

One accessory is a saw mill, complete with a pile of plastic saw dust. When Armstrong presses a button on the village's control panel, a large piece of wood appears to swipe over a spinning blade. The wood slice then drops into another slot, where a miniature man picks it up with his machinery and drops it into a waiting train car.

On the other side of the village, a cow stands on a grassy patch beside a tiny lake made from clear resin. When activated, the cow swings out onto the train track beside it, putting itself in a perilous position. The approaching train, however, stops just in time for the cow to swing back to its grassy patch. Then the train moves on.

One of Armstrong's favorite vintage mechanical accessories is a tin train station. When the train approaches, a tiny record player inside begins spinning. The words have been garbled with age, but the message is still loud.

"All aboard," the record broadcasts, as the train pulls away from the station into the snowy Christmas landscape.


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