Virginia Creeper draws attention to museum
by James Howell
The spirit of the Virginia Creeper Train is alive and well in a diorama presented by the Ashe County Museum, and Ramona Renfroe, the museum’s director, said the exhibit is getting noticed state-wide.
“The amount of detail in this is just phenomenal (in the diorama),” said Renfroe.
The diorama shows both the Virginia Creeper’s path through the county and its path through history. The diorama begins in the Tuckerdale community circa late 1920’s, and shows the train’s path winding through Lansing (1930’s), the Devil’s Stairs, West Jefferson (1940’s and 50’s) and ending in Elkland, which is now known as Todd.
“The railroad really opened this area up; it made a whole lot of difference,” said Betty Eller, a staff member at the museum.
“West Jefferson wasn’t a town before the train came in,” said Eller. “Elkland was the big town.”
What makes this diorama stand out is its meticulous attention to detail. Every character in the diorama tells some kind of story about everyday life in Ashe County during the Creeper’s hay-day. Elderly men are playing checkers, women are gardening and washing clothes, some men are hunting or fishing, and children are playing baseball or flying kites.
In one scene in the diorama, a young boy is kicking a ball while adults are killing hogs in the background. This may not seem very significant on the surface, but Renfroe said this scene has an intriguing real-life story behind it.
The character in the diorama represents a young version of Tony Padgett, who told Renfroe he was always thrilled when the adults killed hogs, because he and his friends were given balls to play with. It turns out, the balls given to the children were actually inflated pig bladders from the hog killing, a make-shift toy for local youth.
“This really tells a lot about the time period,” said Renroe.
The diorama also manages to explain several aspects of Ashe County’s history that younger generations may not be aware of. For instance, Parker Tie Company was started by the Parker family, and their feature product was railroad ties, hence the name: Parker Tie.
The diorama also features several humorous scenes, like a man using an out-house and opening the door; he needed light so he could see to read a book.
This exhibit has entertained visitors since it opened in December, 2011. The diorama was constructed completely by volunteers, who devoted one night per week for about two years to this project.
“Every Thursday morning, the first thing we did was check the diorama to see what had been added to it,” said Renfroe.
According to Renfroe, the diorama took at least 6,000 hours to complete, but Renfroe believes the real figure is closer to 15,000 hours because volunteers would often take their projects home to add finishing touches.
These volunteers didn’t ask for anything in return, but they did “immortalize” themselves in the diorama by placing their names on tombstones in a burial scene.
Renfroe said each town is built to scale using measurements and old photographs. Also, several the buildings had to be custom made to fit the diorama.
Each tree in the diorama was hand-made using tumbleweed and other substances, and the water was made using epoxy glue.
The diorama does require some maintenance from the staff. According to Renfroe, the main priority is keeping the train’s wheels clean and the track clean.
Renfroe said she has considered getting a covering for the diorama to prevent dust from scattering onto the track. She also said the museum plans on adding LED lights to their exhibit, because the halogen and fluorescent lights used in the exhibit produce UV light that will eventually fade the colors of the diorama.
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