By Halley Nani
Edited by Sarah Robbins
Welcome to Dan Dowdey's world at the South Carolina State Museum – a world where tiny trains chug past a diminutive sawmill, a steel mill and grain silo modeled after an Upstate South Carolina town in the 1920s.
As a locomotive heads toward the town, a 2-by-2-foot square opens in the scenery and out pops Dowdey, the museum's expert model-maker, paintbrush in hand to add color to a nearby farmhouse.
Dowdey, 63, is one of about 800 professional model-makers in America. He makes a living with a hobby that has been declining since its heyday in the 1950s.
But experts in diorama and train model-making are certain there will always be a demand for model-makers like Dowdey. Because trains played an important part in the building and expanding of America, they say, museums will want models to show visitors what the trains were like.
"Children get really excited to see the models," said Michael Fey, the State Museum's director of exhibits.
Dowdey also creates computer graphics and completes carpentry and welding projects, a jack-of-all-trades for the State Museum.
"You name it, Dan will get it done," Fey said. "Dan will create something out of almost nothing."
Dowdey recently sat down with The Carolina Reporter to talk about his experiences in modeling and exhibit construction. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A lot of children are passionate about building models, dioramas and stuff like that when they're really young, but they eventually give it up. What made you stay with it for so long?
When I came along, that was the only pastime you really had, if you were doing models. I mean, you didn't have that much TV, you didn't have video games, you didn't have any of that other stuff. Building models came about because it was something you had to do or you had a natural talent to do. Anyway, I did, and that's the reason why I got into it.
I now do it, I'm building most of my models in the computer, so I'm doing that now. So yeah, I think a youngster coming along today is gonna miss out because there's too many other things that'll occupy their time. …
Picking colors and organizing floor plans must require some creative talent. Do you think you're a creative person? …
My biggest thing is, I cannot pull an idea out of the air, but you give me a hint of an idea, and I'll run with it, and that's basically the way it is. I had to design this whole thing [points to model of 1920s Upstate railroad], but I had the basic idea was, I had this area, and I wanted to show this and this and this, so this area had to incorporate this, this and this with this in it and have the whole thing run. So I had a criteria there that I had to work with.
Are there any details that you put into your dioramas that people might overlook that you wish were more appreciated?
Well, funny thing. On the railroad dioramas, I was, early on, when I started doing this, I had a lot of people who were into trains, so-called experts, and they told me, you know ‘cause this was going to be an operating layout, man in five years, your track's gonna be worn out, you'll never keep ‘em running. What, let's see, 23 years, and the track's still there. It's not worn out; they still run. But what I did by listening to that, I said, well I'll just heap as much detail in these things as I can so even if they don't run, they got something to look at, they got something to walk away with a mental image of what they just saw. Kids love it. The kids just flock to these things. And if they're runnin', man, that's great.
If they're not runnin', I hear about it, so, yeah, this tends to be a maintenance nightmare.
To someone not familiar with trains and making models and dioramas and stuff, can you explain their appeal to you? …
So it's interesting for a young kid who's never seen a steam engine, never heard a steam engine, and then try to convey to them in this small scale something that's much, much bigger and much more powerful and shakes the ground and has all these wheels and gears and rods and linkages that turn and move. Steam engines are very, very complicated – that's why they didn't, that's why they got replaced by the diesels. So getting into the history of it, I think if it's done right, it could be really fascinating to a young kid and spark their imagination.