A near-capacity crowd turned out Saturday for the opening of Pulaski’s new museum and the public unveiling of what a model railroad expert said is the “largest 1950s constructed model railroad layout on public display in the U.S.”
Jeff Miller, head of Southern Model Railroaders (SMR) in North Carolina, told those in attendance the uniqueness of Dr. Milton Brockmeyer’s 1950s replica of downtown Pulaski makes it “a treasure for the town of Pulaski; a treasure for the state of Virginia, and a treasure for our country.” He said it’s not only a learning tool for the community, but also a tourist attraction.
It didn’t go without saying Saturday that it took nearly 20 years for the Raymond F. Ratcliffe Memorial Transportation Museum to receive a new home it could call its own.
“We’re here, at long last,” said Pulaski Mayor Jeff Worrell, noting, “Some of you thought this day would never happen, now did you?”
He said the museum grew out of late Mayor Raymond Ratcliffe’s dream to create a museum for the community. Although Ratcliffe never lived to see his dream come true, the museum began in the basement of the Pulaski Municipal a few years following his death. It moved to the train station after it was renovated, and stayed their until the 2008 fire heavily damaged the station and claimed many items on display in the museum.
“Long before the fire, though, it became apparent the museum wasn’t big enough,” said Worrell. “We had the displays you see here, but we didn’t have room to display them.”
Worrell said Ratcliffe’s daughter, Betty Lou Kirkner, who “dedicated thousands of hours of her time to this museum out of an unwavering love for her community and in memory of her father,” used to call him on Sunday afternoons while volunteering at the train station museum. “We would talk for hours about our dreams for this building. Betty Lou, I hope you’ll agree this turned out better than we dreamed,” he said to her.
However, Worrell said it wasn’t until he had a chance to see Dr. Milton Brockmeyer’s train layout, and plans were already underway for the museum building, that he “was convinced we had to make this museum a reality. That doc’s train set must be preserved for future generations of this community.”
Although Brockmeyer did not live to see his dream of having the train set on public display, Worrell said, “I’m sure he is with us in spirit.”
He then turned the floor over to Ty Kirkner, Betty Lou’s son, whom Worrell said “devoted the last few years to making the museum a reality because that’s what his mother wanted and that’s what boys do for their mother.”
“What an incredible day for us, as the Ratcliffe family,” Ty Kirkner said. “There are a lot of emotions.”
He thanked everyone involved in making the museum a reality and noted “This is just the beginning of our museum. We have a lot of work to do. We need to make sure we’re not a (financial) burden to the town of Pulaski.”
Kirkner said the museum embodies his grandfather’s favorite quote, “We need to know who we are and from whence we came.” He said he learned a lot he didn’t know about Pulaski while working on the museum, including the fact it once was known as the “Gem of the south.”
“The town of Pulaski at one time was a great place to live. We can be there again and I think this is an incredible start,” he said. “It’s about community. It’s about people getting together and doing things in tough economic times and tough challenges and making it work.”
He pointed out that greatness is evident in “Doc’s trains” because the set is “a depiction of a community circa 1950-1960 that is so exact – such a replica of who we were in a prosperous time.”
Kirkner shared some facts about the train layout, adding, “Even a small town such as this can withstand an attack from Wallyzilla (see related story).”
•The layout is 79 feet, six inches long and 20 feet at its widest point.
•Dr. Brockmeyer and friends, Willie Ryan, C.P. Huff, “and a few others” worked on the model for nearly 60 years.
•Everything on the layout is built on a quarter-inch scale.
•Flagpoles are operable. Kirkner said he placed them at half-staff in memory of Dr. Brockmeyer.
•The men started gathering information and measurements for the layout as early as the late 1940s through “late-night rides to measure the size of buildings,” to old photos, postcards and aerial photographs.
•Ink dots were used to represent nails and bricks and blocks on the building were drawn to scale. He said the loading dock for the train depot extension had over 2,900 ink dots representing nails and he estimated there are at least a million dots on the entire display. He called the detail “absolutely astounding.”
•There are more than 300 train cars and 20 engines.
•Construction equipment and clay soil was used to depict the straightening of Peak Creek.
•“The Dalton Theatre building is so elaborate” chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling, all seats are in place and strings under the floor allow the curtains to be opened and closed.
“What a treasure the Brockmeyer family has given to us,” he said.
Brockmeyer’s son, Wally, thanked everyone involved in the museum and helping move the train layout so everyone can see it. He especially thanked the Kirkners, saying, “There would be no museum if not for Mrs. Kirkner and Ty.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of time they put in to making this dream come true. I know daddy would be tickled to death, as would Wilmer Ryan, Clarence Gallimore, Doc Holiday, C.P. Huff and all of the members” of a local model train club “who are no longer with us.
“It’s been a long journey of ups and downs,” he said, adding that many a time family members would wring their hands and say, “I’m done,” but Dr. Brockmeyer would always say, “Honey, it’s going to be okay.”
Miller, with the Southbound Model Railroaders, called the train layout a “work of art, talent, history and technology.”
Brockmeyer “was a true modeler of the 1950s, building everything since nothing could really be bought at the store at that time,” Miller added. “Being a frugal man he cleverly used scraps of wood, wire, cardboard, paper and tin cans to create his dream.”
He said SMR members were pleased to be able to make this “historic layout” available for the public to see despite the massive undertaking it was. After a hole was cut through the basement wall of the Brockmeyer home to access the layout, he said it was cut into 17 “heavy sections” that were hauled to the museum over a two-day period, then put back together and repaired “over a dozen two-and-a-half day weekends.”
When all was said and done, he noted, the display was only a quarter inch shorter.
“Dr. Milton Brockmeyer and his friends, especially Willie Ryan, built this model railroad to have fun with trains. His inspiration came from his tremendous love for … Pulaski and its people, and the steady parade of trains outside his window, even today.”
He said he hopes the layout will serve to encourage future generations to “have fun with trains.”
Pulaski Economic Development Director John White, who oversaw the museum project, pointed out the museum is more than a repository, “It’s a living thing.” As such, he said displays will be ever changing.
He encouraged those who have something that fits the transportation and commerce theme to contact the collection’s committee through the town of Pulaski, 994-8600.
Worrell pointed out that a number of items on display in the museum are from the Maple Shade Inn, which was on the same grounds as the museum. In honor of the inn’s final owners, he said, the front portion of the museum will be known as the “Jane O. and Thomas McCarthy Gallery.”
Worrell and the other speakers recognized town employees for their hard work, not only making it possible to get the train set out of Brockmeyer’s basement, but also bringing the museum together.
White recognized C.P. Huff’s daughter, Dee, as being the person who came farthest for the museum dedication. She came from Battle Ground, Wash.
Bob and Beverly Hudson also attended. Worrell said Bob Hudson located, purchased and restored the 1909 International Harvester fire truck on display in the museum, then donated it to the town.
Also present were 9th District Rep. Morgan Griffith and 38th District Senator Phillip Puckett.