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Making tracks

Making tracks: Milwaukee man models rural Wisconsin towns, industries

Milwaukee man models rural Wisconsin towns, industries

  • 4 min to read

MILWAUKEE — Jerry Gunderson has fond memories as a youngster in the 1960s and 70s of making the trip with his parents from Milwaukee to Wautoma to visit grandparents on their dairy farm. He remembers the cows, the iconic red barn, a derelict train depot on the east side of Wautoma and bumping over the abandoned Chicago Northwestern tracks across Highway 73. Now, decades later, Gunderson has recreated in 1:160 scale a miniature world of familiar rural industries and central Wisconsin towns and has once again connected them by rail, but this time, it is a modeler’s railroad in his Milwaukee Bay View neighborhood basement.

“I had trains when I was a kid. Somebody gave my brother and I a set, and we had those until we probably got tired of them or broke the rails or whatever,” Gunderson explained.

As a young man, he took an interest in Ford muscle cars but came back to model railroading in about 1988 when he was looking for a different diversion. On a visit to the hobby store he found tiny rail sets only half the size of the HO scale trains he remembered as a kid and realized he could get more track in a smaller space. He also met a model train enthusiast who got him involved with the Milwaukee-N-Southeastern Model Railroad Club and their club layout.

“When I got there in 1990, it was pretty much plywood central. They had track but no scenery, which was kind of neat, because it made me learn how to do scenery when I started working on it,” Gunderson said. “I kind of learned my mistakes on that one, so when I did (mine) I was a little better at it.”

For the next 10 years, he helped develop the club’s model railroad, collected ideas for his future project and went “railfanning” with club members to watch real trains on real tracks.

“I like maps, and I kind of like history, so while we were sitting there waiting for a train, I started actually studying the route and the towns along where the trains were,” he said. “I remember the train coming through Wautoma, so I looked on the map and found there was a (Chicago) Northwestern line that went from Fond du Lac, Randolph, Manchester, Wautoma, Wild Rose, Bancroft, Almond and into Wisconsin Rapids. I found out later it actually went as far as Marshfield.”

Beginning in 2000 and for the next four years, Gunderson recreated his version of the route, using the real town names but taking “modelers license” and shifting iconic Wisconsin industries to where they worked best within his track system, renamed Ford City Northern Railway. Its starting point — Ford City — includes his FCN rail yard, Norge Dairy Co-op, a replica 1890 depot that he saw in northern Wisconsin, an engine house from Superior, Kwik Trip and Dairy Queen stores found around the state, an implement dealer from near Slinger and switch yards for each industry.

The detail is mindboggling. Norge Dairy Co-op has an operating overhead lift and office desks with computers the size of gnats, vehicles are finely detailed over less than an inch of length, and a half dozen rail cars could easily fit in one hand. In N scale, tracks are only nine millimeters apart, and 3/4 inch represents 10 feet.

“N scale gives me the opportunity where it’s not too small where I can’t see it, but it’s not too big to be able to run it; to be a neat little setup and only take up a third of the basement,” Gunderson said.

The layout is built on a plywood shelf at chest height and winds around dividing walls to give the impression of distance in a small space; what modelers call selective compression. Track is nailed down and filled in with finely crushed walnut shells to look like gravel ballast. Scenery material — shredded tinted foam — is glued in place to replicate trees and other foliage, and buildings are constructed from cardboard and styrene plastic sheathing. Imaginary highways and connecting railroad lines run in and out of the scenes, disappearing behind hills and trees that are so realistic one would expect to see a squirrel scurry past.

“You put it down to look like the original, and the neat thing about it is that I like to make it look as real as I can,” Gunderson said. “For me, that’s what drives me to do this, even more than running trains. I actually have more fun trying to simulate and replicate what I see.”

There are ready-made building kits available for modelers, but Gunderson prefers working from scratch or “kitbashing,” which is reworking a kit to fit his plan. His fulltime job as a shipping container designer fits well with his hobby.

The layout is set in the autumn with fall-colored trees and typical seasonal activities. Traveling the route, his trains pass dairy farms where the fields have been harvested and cows graze, over a river with a canoe paddler heading upstream beneath the trestle, and eventually past a cranberry marsh where school children watch the harvest.

His rail line mixes reality with fantasy. The real Lakeside Foods is set in Princeton, but so is Badgerland Minerals, which is modeled on a quarry at Spring Green. The tiny White River near Wautoma is given Wisconsin River proportions to drive a hydro-power station and the imaginary Wautoma Pulp and Paper Mill, which is a mashup of real mills in Kimberly, Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point. Wild Rose is his home for the non-existent Wild Rose Creamery, and its lumber yard is a replica of one near Lomira. Each is meticulously researched and reproduced with details like miniscule turbines in the power station and appropriate rail cars for each industry.

“Most railroaders don’t go this far. It’s just too much work,” Gunderson said.

The FCN line ends in front of the façade and red-striped towers of Consolidated Papers (now Verso) in downtown Wisconsin Rapids. Rail cars disappear behind a partition to start their run back in Ford City.

Although the basic layout was finished more than a decade ago, Gunderson said he is always tweaking the scenes, updating the train technology and fixing the hundreds of little imperfections that bother him. The layout will accommodate five or six operators “playing” with the trains.

Gunderson joked that he keeps all of his train work behind a closed door in the basement where only his fellow modelers can see it.

“If some people came in and saw this, they’d say this guy’s got too much time on his hands,” he said, laughing.

Outsiders can get a sneak peek at Gunderson’s FCN line at his website, or by searching FCN Railfan on Facebook.