PARKERSBURG, W.Va. -- The model trains in Joe Stephens' layouts don't run along molded plaster hills. They chug over bridges made of willow branches, past flowing waterfalls and emerge from hollow log tunnels to run past cedar bark hillsides.
Stephens creates garden railway settings entirely from natural botanical materials. One of his settings graces a track with seven G-scale trains in a display at the Mid-Ohio Valley Model Railroad in Parkersburg.
The bulk of his work resides in slightly loftier locations.
For about six months a year, Stephens, who owns Stephens Outdoor Railways in Vienna, fashions cedar bark, grapevines, acorns and other woodsy finds into elaborate railway garden displays in high-traffic areas such as the botanical gardens in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati and the Texas State Fair.
G-scale trains are the largest model trains. One inch on a G-scale train translates to about 25 inches on a real train.
The settings frame intricate buildings that often replicate well-known local structures, also made entirely of botanicals by Applied Imagination in Kentucky. The team of artists at Applied Imagination builds fanciful buildings, tree houses and gazebos as well as impressive landmarks commissioned for the display. Stephens travels with the Applied Imagination team as they install the gardens.
Stephens recently commissioned Applied Imagination for a personal project. He had them create the Parkersburg Train Depot, an 1883 landmark that was destroyed in 1973.
"This was my way of bringing the station back to Parkersburg. When I was a kid, my grandfather took me around the station. He was always crazy about trains," said Stephens.
Eucalyptus leaves line the station's roof in a realistic miniature facsimile of a slate roof. Cinnamon sticks and whole cloves trim the roofline. The front stoops are made of wood fungi, the windows of willow twigs and silver maple bark lines the foundation.
A building such as the train station takes about 200 hours for the artists to make. At a rate of $60 an hour, the retail price tag was about $11,500. The larger and more expensive buildings commissioned for big-city displays can run into tens of thousands dollars. A 10- by 8-foot replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is insured for $200,000.
He plans to commission other Parkersburg landmarks such as the courthouse and log cabin, fountain, statue and band shell in City Park.
Last year, more than 168,000 people toured the display at the New York Botanical Gardens. Many of the larger installations change their theme yearly to generate ongoing interest.
Before an installation, Stephens inspects the track layout, which is created at Applied Imagination's Kentucky facility, to get an idea of what is needed. He sculpts sylvan settings for the imaginative indoor/outdoor train gardens from cedar bark, which he molds into tall hillsides, waterfalls and backdrops. In his hands, grapevine and willow branches become bridges and towers.
There's no such thing as a casual walk in the woods for Stephens -- or anyone at Applied Imagination. Their eyes dart constantly in search of building materials. Willow makes great bridges and trim; a rotten stump often yields shelf fungus. Acorns are perfect for house and handrail trim.
"I don't see a twisted grapevine. I see something decorative to hold up an overhead track or to use in the mountain backdrop," he said.
His need for woodsy materials attracts the attention of his friends, one of whom brings treasures such as tree fungi that he finds on frequent walks in the woods.