Thursday, November 4, 2010

A model community

Published in the Post Register,November, 2010

AMMON – Imagine yourself strolling down a downtown street, a neon café sign blinking down the block, a train whistle echoing off the buildings.

Two streets over, children play among reeds and cattails. Outside of town, a coal mine and ski hill co-exist, each operating at full capacity.

It’s not a Frank Capra movie set. It lives in miniature inside an otherwise unremarkable building on the Fogarty Ranch, reached down a long, tree-lined country lane. The only tipoff for what’s inside is a working train signal standing just outside the door.

Inside the building of less than a thousand square feet, however, are model O-scale train tracks winding a total of a quarter-mile or so, home to more than a dozen locomotives and a hundred cars. But there is more – much, much more.

Here, on retired submariner Frank Fogarty’s land, Fogarty and collaborator Kerry Weber have created an entire series of scenes, from neighborhoods to quaint downtowns to fishing holes. Look closely at the scenes and you’ll begin noticing the attention to detail – copper drain pipes, working street lights, flashing neon. For winter Weber will add “snow,” which has been prepared beforehand. 

“It’s my life’s work, pretty much,” says Weber. He’s spent the equivalent of three years of full-time work – 6,000 hours – building the sets, laying the tracks, creating the landscapes and, with Fogarty’s help, figuring out the electronics, all on a 48=1 scale. Weber and Fogarty have taken exceeding care to make the whole thing as realistic as possible.

Weber has been making things with his hands for years, from birdhouses to furniture. As Fogarty increased his model train collection, a thought occurred to Weber.

“He said well, ‘we need some scenery in there’,” Fogarty says. “I said, ‘Well, can you do it?’”

“The rest,” Weber says, “is history.”

“He’s the artist, the one that built all the scenery,” says Fogarty.

Fogarty, now 86, has had a lifelong fascination with trains (he also once captained world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, and later worked at the Idaho National Laboratory). He began collecting model trains and running them on tracks back in the early 1990s. A family friend, Kerry Weber, now 40, starting building things for the sets in the mid-1990s and in 1999 took on the project of converting an entire building into a model train fantasy set.

Indeed, watching the passing scenes via a video camera mounted on one of the trains, the views are hard to distinguish from what you might see outside your Amtrak car, only prettier.

The two men haven’t been content to just put some tracks up and run trains around them.  There are computer-aided sounds, flashing signal lights and neon signs, scenes complete with cattails and flower gardens, a “working” sawmill with running water, and a dozen visual vignettes that require hours to fully take in.

During the holidays, Frank and his wife, Dorothy, often joined by Weber, will host local church and school groups. For those visits, they will rig the locomotives to actually belch smoke. The building can accommodate no more than 15 or so people at a time, so visits are by appointment only.

On the walls around the models are photos showing the process of making the scenes, which requires painting the small human figures, making hills starting with foam rubber, and even using plaster to makes rocks and gravel. Look around and you see model power lines, rust on the rooftops, even a Good Humor man.

They’re not done – other projects are in the works, including putting the finishing touches on a ski resort that is taking shape, which will include, yes, an operational ski lift.

If you go: An appointment is required to visit the Fogarty Ranch trains. To request an appointment, send an e-mail to Frank Fogarty at

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