Houses set the scene

Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg
(A single house at St. Williams provides an important clue that there’s a town here somewhere)

A reader recently got in touch privately to offer some observations about my layout, having read my article in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource. He wrote, in part…

In my mind there are a couple of areas that help to “set the scene”. One is the use of houses, making it seem so natural that folks actually live there. Too many times we modelers only include structures that somehow are directly related to the railroad in some way. By your including houses, you set a scene of community.

Thanks! That’s a great observation – and it tells me that my use of houses is working because that’s exactly what I hoped they would do. For me, the houses provide a clue that the train is serving two towns – as opposed to two industrial districts, or two cities, for example. They also suggest that somebody from “around these parts” might be riding the daily-except-Sunday mixed train, at least some of the time.

What’s interesting is that conveying this sense of community doesn’t have to require a lot of real estate. On my layout, I have a single house in St. Williams, and two in Port Rowan. (Actually, one house and one mock-up at this time, as the photo below illustrates…)

 photo PtR-Chestnut-TwoHouses-03_zps4c1caab3.jpg

Those looking for railroads that exist in seclusion can find plenty of examples – from Shay-powered lumber lines to more modern examples such as the Plaster City Railroad, a three-foot gauge line operated by US Gypsum:

(Modern, but with a moonscape vibe. You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

But beyond resource haulers and other specialized lines, railroads exist to serve communities – with a varying mix of people and businesses depending upon them. It pays to represent that – to put the railroad in context – in our miniature worlds.

Backyard Trio

Privacy Fence photo StW-Fence-01_zps0bcabeb8.jpg

While I have minimal real estate in which to do it, I want to suggest that there’s more to the town of St. Williams than a level crossing. That said, I also don’t want to crowd the scene with structures. How to proceed?

I’ve kept clear a plot of land to the right of the depot and my plan is to use this area to suggest some back yards. Naturally, anybody living this close to the tracks – even a rail fan – would want a privacy fence. It became obvious that I would have to install this fence before I finish and plant the trees in these backyards, so I’ve spent a couple of days worth of hobby time scratch-building the fence.
Privacy Fence photo StW-Fence-02_zps5a37e9ea.jpg

As the pictures show, I’ve actually built three styles of fence to reinforce the message that we’re looking at three backyards, not one:

The property at left (closest to the station) has a simple board fence that’s fairly roughly assembled.

The middle property has a tighter board fence built in panels between the posts, with a top board to trim things off neatly.

The property at right has a more decorative fence, with the boards trimmed in arcs.

Privacy Fence photo StW-Fence-03_zps8feb3fd4.jpg

Privacy Fence photo StW-Fence-04_zps9e664a9d.jpg

Each property is 60 scale feet wide – actually, three times the width of the downtown Toronto property I’m used to, and a respectable size for a property in a small Ontario town. I have about a scale 30 feet between the fence and the back of the layout, and I’ve added short sections of fence at each end of this trio of backyards. In all, I built about 240 scale feet of fence – and I did it board by board, with each board distressed and stained before assembly. The project used a lot of scale 1″ x 6″ – several packages worth!

I’ve also started to create the backyards. The glue is still wet in these photos, but I’ve added grass and some basic plantings. Look at the above photos and you’ll see some bushes separating the middle and right properties, and some flowers along the property line between the left and middle backyards. I’ll add a simple fence behind the flowers here.

The home owner of the property at right is growing tomato plants – I’ll have to add old hockey sticks redeployed as stakes. That’ll make it very Canadian:
Privacy Fence photo StW-Fence-05_zps8125d1a4.jpg

Time to tackle St. Williams

While working out how to handle the LCL traffic at St. Williams, it occurred to me that it’s probably time to focus more on this area of the layout.
M233 at St. Williams depot photo M233-StW-Depot_zps73d83bf1.jpg

M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg

I’ve done an overall first pass of scenery on the layout, but the Port Rowan area has received a lot more attention in this regard, with the addition of second-wave elements such as weeds and bushes. Port Rowan has also benefitted from the addition of a few finished structures such as the coal dump, the section house, and the team track barn.

St. Williams has crops, but no fences. There are no trees, no weeds, and no bushes. The team track area has one finished structure – the grain storage building I’ve relocated from Cheltenham – but the station area is still 100% mocked up.

And I’m in the mood to tackle the very modest St. Williams station. (Much more modest than the original, Grand Trunk-era station, which was similar to the one I have to build for Port Rowan.)

Interestingly, this web site says the station still exists as a storage shed somewhere…

No promises on when I’ll get this done. But stay tuned.


Between the Kilns photo Tobacco-BackField-01_zps2e5562e0.jpg

I’m not a smoker, but thanks to the leetle trains I’ve learned some things about the growing, curing and marketing of flue-cured tobacco – the type of tobacco that would be destined for the kilns I plan to model for the St. Williams area on my layout.

To wit:

– Flue-cured tobacco was introduced to Ontario in 1913.

– In 1953, more than 88,000 acres in Ontario were planted with flue-cured tobacco, mostly in the counties in southwestern Ontario. This produced more than 127-million pounds of tobacco worth more than $55 million.

– In 1957, more than 117,000 acres produced more than 147-million pounds of tobacco, worth more than $74 million.

– The growing process starts in greenhouses in the spring. These are not artificially heated, but do require a lot of “black muck” – the goop found in swamp lands. Before planting, the muck would be sterilized – either by chemicals, by steaming, or both. Steaming required a boiler – usually a relic fired by coal or wood.

– Popular varieties of tobacco in grown in Ontario included Hicks Broadleaf, Delcrest and White Gold. Hicks Broadleaf accounted for about 65% of Ontario’s crop. Seeds were usually purchased from specialized growers. Fertilizers were applied at seeding time.

– Seedlings were transplanted to the field around the middle of May. It required 6,000-7,000 seedlings per acre. Most Ontario tobacco growers had 20 to 40 acres.

– Special fertilizers were used, keyed to the type of soil the farmer would be planting in. Light sandy soils are preferred but tobacco could also be grown in heavier loamy soils. Drainage is important, as is regular watering. Fertilizers tend to be low in nitrogen – 2-10-15 for example – and one acre of tobacco required anywhere from 800-1500 pounds of fertilizer.

– Transplanting was usually finished by the middle of June.

– Crops were quite tasty to bugs, so insecticides were used regularly to control them. Bugs and pests included cutworm, wireworm, seed maggots, horn worm… you get the idea. 🙁

– Tobacco requires well-drained soil, but also lots of water. 75% of farmers have irrigation systems in their fields (by the late 1960s).

– Harvesting begins in early August. By the second week, it’s definitely on. Harvest can take until October, although more typically it was finished by mid-September.

– Leaves that are ready for harvesting are picked by a crew of Primers, and moved to the kilns to be tied and loaded.
 photo Tobacco-Kilns-HO-Finished_zps6cbeb1e6.jpg
(HO kilns built for my friend Pierre Oliver. Click on the photo for more info.)

– A kiln holds 1,200 sticks of tobacco, with each stick holding about 90 leaves.

– Curing involves careful management of temperature and humidity. The flues are heated by stoves fueled by coal, wood or oil. The curing process takes three to six days.

– A farm typically has one kiln for every five to six acres of tobacco, so each kiln is refilled several times during the harvest season.

– Cured tobacco was then moved to a pack barn. It takes some time to remove the leaves from the stalks, bundle and tie it, mark it, and generally prepare it for auction. Auctions began in early November.

– Tobacco farmers rotate their crops. They’ll plant tobacco on a field, then another crop. Suitable alternate crops include rye and wheat, but also potatoes…

M233 at St. Williams depot photo M233-StW-Depot_zps73d83bf1.jpg

… and corn:

M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg

So… all very interesting, right? But what does it mean for my layout?


From this information, I can now create freight waybills to deliver everything from tobacco seeds, fertilizers and insecticides, to coal and oil for the kilns and irrigation system and drainage tile for the fields.

I can also create seasonal operating sessions, with deliveries corresponding to different times of the year. Even though my modelled season is “August”, I think that tweaking operating sessions to reflect the current month (in the 1:1 world – so right now, I would be running June operating sessions) is a great way to add variety to a layout.

Does it matter that the St. Williams Plantation (yes, there was one and that’s what it was called) is receiving sacks of Hicks Broadleaf Seed as LCL during a February operating session, even though operators can see full-grown tobacco plants ready for harvest on the layout? I don’t think anybody will mind.

My source for this information is Tobacco in Canada, a booklet produced in the early 1970s by The Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board based on a book by a one-time vice-chair of the board, Lyal Tait:
Tobacco in Canada booklet photo TobaccoInCanada_zps29121979.jpg

I picked up my copy of the booklet a couple of summers ago while visiting the Delhi Tobacco Museum and Heritage Centre, part of a fact-finding mission to help me build tobacco kilns for St. Williams. I know I paid less than $5 for it, and encourage anybody who is modelling southwestern Ontario from 1913 onward to grab a copy.

Tying sticks and loading a kiln

Someone recently asked me about how tobacco kilns were loaded. The process can be seen in the National Film Board movie The Back-breaking Leaf that I recently shared on this blog, but here are a couple of vintage postcard pictures that also show how it’s done.

As they show, workers tie tobacco leaves onto sticks and then load the sticks onto a portable conveyor at the tying station. The conveyor carries the sticks of tobacco up through the large shutters – held open with a rope tied through a piece of hardware under the eaves. Inside, workers will grab the sticks and suspend them in rows across the kiln.
Tying sticks photo Tobacco-Harvest-01_zps9fd58070.jpg

Loading a kiln photo Tobacco-Harvest-02_zpsb4eb844c.jpg

Doors on kiln sidewalls

HO Tobacco Kiln - front photo TobaccoKiln-HO-01.jpg

I’ve made some progress on the four additional HO scale tobacco kilns I’m building for my friend Pierre Oliver. (These are a good practice run for the five kilns I will need to build in S scale for St. Williams.)

With a strong mug of tea and plenty of styrene strip to hand, I added framing and the large loading doors to the sidewalls. I worked in assembly-line fashion, giving the thick CA time to cure between steps.

I started with the top piece of framing – a piece of HO scale 2″x4″, glued to the wall with CA and trimmed to length. Then I added the centre loading door:
HO Tobacco Kilns - Sidewall Construction 01 photo TobaccoKiln-HO-08_zpsb57956f6.jpg

Next, I added strips of 2″x4″ to either side of the loading door, followed by the other two doors on each side wall. Note I eyeballed a tiny gap between the framing strips and the doors to either side. The strips are also slightly longer than the doors, which measure 48″x66″:
HO Tobacco Kilns - Sidewall Construction 02 photo TobaccoKiln-HO-09_zps4f7b3d32.jpg

I followed this with two more vertical strips and a piece of framing along the bottom. Note that I cut the horizontal framing strips longer than the side walls, then trim to length after the CA has cured:
HO Tobacco Kilns - Sidewall Construction 03 photo TobaccoKiln-HO-11_zpsfdf72510.jpg

I also added three small pieces of 2″x4″ to the walls above the centre of each door:
HO Tobacco Kilns - Sidewall Construction 04 photo TobaccoKiln-HO-10_zps42b03c7c.jpg

Later on, I’ll add an eyebolt to each of these blocks. Farmers would run a rope through these eyebolts to tie the doors in the open position for loading the kiln. This can be seen in this detail photo of a tobacco kiln near Scotland, Ontario:
 photo Kiln-12_zps9912453d.jpg

Next up, I need to add the hinges along the top of each door, and the simple wooden latches that keep the doors closed when not in use. Lots of little pieces to cut and glue!

Up to my ears…

… in cornstalks!

JTT Corn (Detail) photo Cornfield-02_zps4e283434.jpg

I’ve just spent several hours over two days planting corn in the large field at St. Williams. I did not count them as I planted, but based on how much I ordered and how much is left, it’s safe to say there are more than 2,000 corn stalks in this field:
JTT Corn (Overview) photo Cornfield-01_zpsc95b6a8f.jpg

(To recap, before Christmas I placed a bulk order for these lovely cornstalks, manufactured for HO scale by JTT Scenery Products. The service was excellent – and the package was shipped directly from the factory in Viet Nam.)

I originally planned to plant a field of corn near the depot in St. Williams, and in fact planted a test-patch of about 100 stalks:
Cornfield at St. Williams photo Corn-JTT-01.jpg
(Where the corn used to be…)

But I’ve decided to do something else with that space, and the big field called out for corn.

Here’s how to plant a scale cornfield:

– Poke a hole in your scenery base with an awl.
– Grab a corn stalk with a pair of needle nose pliers (preferably with sprung jaws) and dip the bottom in a puddle of white glue (PVA).
– Stick the stalk in the hole.
– Repeat 2,000 times.

Was the effort worth it? Well, as I look across the tops of the stalks at a passing train, I certainly think so:
X1560 West at St. Williams photo Cornfield-03_zps7fc35f94.jpg CNR 1560 and Cornfield photo Cornfield-04_zpsaf996e5e.jpg Across the cornfield photo Cornfield-05_zps500e98ce.jpg

While there’s still a lot of work to do in St. Williams (including fencing in the fields), I think this area of the layout is coming together nicely. I’m particularly pleased by this view, looking east from the highway overpass:
St. Williams Interlude photo StWilliams-South_zps3dc95074.jpg

And it was a nice break from building tobacco!

My Ai Weiwei moment

Also known as, “The back tobacco field is finished”!
Between the Kilns photo Tobacco-BackField-01_zps2e5562e0.jpg

While using tweezers to build more than 500 little tobacco plants for the back field at St. Williams, I could identify with the craftspeople who painted the 100,000,000 (yes – one hundred million!) porcelain sunflower seeds for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei‘s 2010 installation at the Tate Modern in London:

I’m sure there were many days when those artists felt the project would never end – and I know I felt that way with the Busch HO scale tobacco plants I used.

But the field is done and ready for a fence.

I installed the field this weekend. I realized that since I was going to add dirt to the field to hide the plastic base, I was going to have to prevent diluted glue from pouring over the back edge of the layout (and possibly ruining the fabric backdrop: There’s a gap, about an inch wide, between layout and backdrop but I didn’t want to take any chances). Here’s how I did that:

First, I test-fit the field:
Test-fit field photo Tobacco-BackField-02_zps828739c8.jpg

What’s not obvious in the above picture is that I’ve airbrushed the plants with a variety of greens and a bit of tan. I used flat-drying acrylics from Vallejo, which broke up the uniformity of the plants and killed the plastic shine. Yes, I weathered my crops.

I then set aside the field and laid down a line of No More Nails adhesive near the back edge of the layout. I then put a two-inch wide angle into a length of aluminum foil and glued this to the layout surface, adding more No More Nails to seal the edge of the foil:
A line of No More Nails photo Tobacco-BackField-03_zps5787976b.jpg Catching the mess photo Tobacco-BackField-04_zpsc75ab1bf.jpg

I then spread more adhesive and pressed the field into place:
Gluing down the tobacco field photo Tobacco-BackField-05_zpsffb4ad16.jpg

Then I went away and let the No More Nails cure.

The next day, I shook a Scenic Express dirt blend over the field. I used a soft paint brush to brush the tops of the plants – this was sufficient to knock off most of the dirt that landed on the leaves. I then wet down the area with water (I use an olive oil sprayer, which delivers a fine mist – no wetting agent required) and applied dilute Weld Bond adhesive with an eyedropper. The missing plants in the field really helped with this, as I had spaces to insert the eyedropper without getting glue all over the plants themselves:
Adding soil to the tobacco field photo Tobacco-BackField-06_zps86550235.jpg

Here’s the finished field, ready for a fence:
Tobacco field installed photo Tobacco-BackField-07_zpse1e66846.jpg

I’m very happy with how this turned out.

Finally, as a comparison, have a look at the finished field with airbrushed plants and dirt, versus a photo of the field under construction. I think the extra effort was worth it:
Tobacco field close-up photo Tobacco-BackField-08_zpsea3dc67c.jpg Tobacco Plants photo TobaccoPlants-01.jpg

That’s it for tobacco – for now. I have another 250-300 plants to build for the front edge of the layout, but first I have to build the fence for this field, then build five tobacco kilns.

I’m not yet done with Ai Weiwei moments, it seems!

40 to go

No, I’m not ignoring you…

The reason I haven’t posted much about layout progress lately is the stuff I’m working on is slow-going.

For example, I spent several hours this week building tobacco plants for the field in St. Williams. I have another 40 to do and then the back field is finished. That’s only 400 more little pieces to glue together – given that I’ve already assembled more than 450 of the plants, another 40 is a piece of cake!

I will post a photo when I’m done. Stay tuned…

(Then, of course, there’s the front field – a narrow strip that will go between the tobacco kilns and the fascia. But I’m trying to ignore that for now. In any case, I will likely build the kilns first so I’m not working over the fields to install them.)