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Former mayor’s dioramas on display in downtown Danville for one more week

Visitors to downtown Danville have one more week to see several highly detailed model train layouts on display inside several Main Street storefronts.

The large dioramas depict rural Kentucky life in the 1930s through the 1950s, when steam engines were being phased out for diesel and train depots were a big part of life in many small towns.

They were created by former Danville mayor and state representative John W.D. Bowling as a kind of Christmas gift, a nice treat for downtown visitors during the holiday season.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
One of John Bowling’s downtown dioramas includes billboards atop two-story buildings, pedestrians, classic cars and more.

“The key to modeling is you make it as interesting as possible and as real as possible,” said Bowling, an avid model train layout builder with decades of experience.

The dioramas are on display in the front windows of Coldwell Banker, Hilliard Lyons and the old Cue on Main building, all located along Main Street between Third and Fourth streets.

While the large layouts are impressive in their own right, an even grander display sits inside Bowling’s “train building” at his home on Maple Avenue.

Bowling’s personal layout stretches the length of the building; it features 120 buildings, mostly situated inside three different cities; 1,600 figurines of people engaging in all aspects of mid-20th-century life; more than 4,000 trees, most of which were handcrafted by Bowling; and three main powered train lines crossing bridges and winding their way through knobs like you might find in southern Boyle County.

Everything is done at 1:87 scale and it took him seven years to get it to where it’s at right now.

Hobby turned passion

It’s raining outside as Bowling stands inside the building that houses his layout and workshop. As he powers up the layout and explains how the digital control system and its four miles of wiring work, his eyes sparkle.

“You never finish a layout,” he says. “You always are tweaking on it or adding different scenery, or adding automobiles …”

Bowling has many tricks up his sleeves when it comes to his model train layouts — this current one is his seventh and he says likely final massive undertaking. He uses small tree roots turned upside down to create dead trees, for example. Logs in a logging truck are actually tiny twigs cut exactly right and stacked using tweezers. Billboards along one rail line are painted as political signs, asking the tiny world’s train-riders to vote for his granddaughters. One of the trains chugging along is an exact replica of a train he would ride as a small child with his mom when they traveled to Louisville.

“I just get down here and I get started and I don’t think about time,” he says. “I just get engrossed in what I’m doing. It’s a fun hobby and it’s a rewarding hobby. I come down here and the rest of the world could go by and I’d never know it.”

Bowling, whose work has been featured in Model Railroader magazine, says he got the idea to put his smaller dioramas downtown at a model train show in Madison, Tennessee, when someone asked him if he had ever displayed his work in public. He hadn’t.

“So I went to a couple (downtown businesses) and asked, and they said sure,” he says.

Bowling has already gotten numerous requests from other downtown merchants for dioramas, but he doesn’t have anymore available at the moment.

Asked if his dioramas could become a downtown tradition every Christmas season, Bowling responds, “Maybe so. Maybe we could do that. I’d kind of like to do that.”