Dick Miller remembers growing up in tiny Magnolia, Ohio, during the 1930s. He particularly remembers the Pennsylvania railroad. "The main line from Chicago to New York went through our town," he said, "and many people were connected in some way to the line." His wife's uncle was a railroad engineer, and a neighbor worked on the steam engines. Miller, a carpenter who moved with his family from Ohio to Clearwater in 1972, retired in 1998 and had a yen to do something different with his skills. The railroad of his childhood came to mind. In 2005, a large train set started taking shape on the Millers' property, and it has been growing ever since.
"I absolutely love it," he said of his train village, which now consists of 42 handmade buildings along some 300 feet of track. The track winds around an enclosed lanai and then shoots through a small door resembling a pet exit. Outside, the G-guage track circles a wide swath of back yard, also home to rosemary, tomatoes, onions and hot peppers.
The "D & J" railroad, named for Dick and his wife, Judy, runs on remote control. A computer powers up the train with signals to the engine.
"The computer can tell the engine to start, stop or go in reverse," Miller said. "It will tell it to speed up, slow down or turn the bells on and off."
The village is intricate and meticulously detailed, requiring hours of work to maintain.
"Right now, remodeling my buildings has become a full-time job," Miller said, "like the two that were eaten by termites."
The 42 buildings scattered along the tracks include several white frame churches. One represents the church where the couple was married more than 50 years ago.
Other buildings include a train depot and a white frame house complete with a basement, windmill and outhouse reminiscent of the home where Miller grew up. The roof of the depot has more than 3,000 shingles, all made by Miller.
Miller, 79, designed and created almost all the buildings, including a farm supply store, saloon, sawmill and gas station. He made all the tiny machinery in the sawmill, as well as a trolley for rolling the logs.
Judy Miller said she, too, is heavily invested in her husband's hobby.
"I paint the buildings, make the signs and cut the stained glass windows in the churches," she said.
If passengers occupied the small trains gliding along on the backyard tracks, they would encounter beauty all along the way: a bridge, a rocky cliff, a waterfall and a waterwheel, along with lush vegetation.
"My greatest challenge has been getting that waterwheel to work right," Miller said. "Now I am planning to repair the tracks."
Weather often slows repairs, but so does the carpel tunnel disease that has affected Miller's ability to use his hands. It has slowed him down, he said, but it hasn't stopped him.
Miller owns about three dozen model railroad cars collected over the years.
"We used to go to train shows around the state," he said, "but we've bought cars everywhere."
One car resembling a caboose is actually a track cleaner with two little wheels constantly clearing dirt off the track.
The garage/workshop is stocked with a bench saw, a band saw, a joiner for smoothing wood, as well as pressure-treated pine, redwood and cypress purchased at a sawmill in Pinellas Park.
Train clubs are not for them, said Miller, but friends and visitors are always welcome to watch the trains zoom, or meander, through the scenic miniature town.
The village mainly is a source of joy for the couple, their four adult children, and 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It also gives structure to Dick Miller's day.
"I'm so happy he has something to keep him busy," Judy Miller said.
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]