Masters of their universe 

Small-scale artistry meets big-time obsession when western Montana enthusiasts create their own miniature world

When you're playing God, the devil is in the details.

It's been said that the moment a hunter squeezes the trigger and drops his prey, the fun is over. That same watershed moment hits every model railroader when he paints the final letter on a tiny water tower or pokes his last wee pine tree into place on a foam hillside. His layout is complete; there's nothing left to do but hit the switch and watch his trains go 'round and 'round. No matter how many tunnels or trestles are in his layout, it's all downhill from there.

For most model railroad buffs, the kick comes from creating a world over which they have complete control. The allure of this basement omnipotence fuels countless magazines, hobby shops, websites, online forums and local clubs, all devoted to the "World's Biggest Hobby."

The National Model Railroad Association lists 78 registered clubs in the U.S., and there are hundreds of independent groups across the country that gather regularly to share their passion for model railroading. The association estimates that there are 300,000 hobbyists in the U.S., and more than half a million worldwide.

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"I pity a man who doesn't have a hobby like this one. It's just the most supreme relaxation. Every person should have one hobby that really captures his interest," said Rod Stewart in a 2007 cover story for Model Railroader Magazine. Yes, that Rod Stewart. The rooster-haired rocker always arranges to have an extra hotel room when he's on tour, where he can set up tables and spend his mornings crafting buildings for his massive HO-scale layout.

Stewart is among a number of famous folk who spend a lot of their time and cash building model railroads. Tom Brokaw, Neil Young, Mandy Patinkin, Merle Haggard and Tom Hanks are celebrated model railroaders, as were Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and Joe DiMaggio.

As suggested by that list of luminaries, the hobby tends to attract mostly older, male devotees. Baby boomers were at the perfect age in the mid-20th century as the model train craze hit its stride. Millions of little boys ran down the hallway on Christmas morning to find a model train set—usually a tin-sheathed, O-scale Lionel—whistling and clattering its way around the tree.

Nowadays, precision-milled scale locomotives, some costing thousands of dollars, pull trains through intricate layouts that can have the square footage of a racquetball court. By now those baby boomers are cruising past the outer reaches of middle age, and they have the resources to fund larger, more complex layouts loaded with intricate features and fascinating detail.

Many of these layouts sport the eye-popping scale buildings and dioramas created by a guitar-slinging mad scientist of miniatures based right here in western Montana.

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When Randy Pepprock moved back to Missoula from Los Angeles in 1993, he, like many in this high-cost/low-pay town, invented his own job. The job he invented involves creating the pieces and parts for people who want to create their own worlds.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

In his workshop south of Hamilton, Pepprock designs and fabricates hyper-detailed architectural miniatures, most of which are sold to model railroad enthusiasts. His company, Downtown Deco, caters to the verisimilitude freaks who want a more grimy, run-down look to their train layouts. Of the handful of companies that create this particular style of miniature, Pepprock says his is probably the oldest and most well-known. He's even sold a few of his kits to Stewart, shipping them to the rocker's Beverly Hills and U.K. mansions, or to the hotel where he happens to be staying while on tour.

Having recently returned from a convention in Pasadena, Calif., Pepprock had the opportunity to take in the work of fellow miniatures artists from around the world in dozens of layout modules on display. He's been posting photos from the show on his Facebook page.

"My stuff is okay, but there are lots of guys whose stuff is better than mine," he says.

One of those guys Pepprock refers to is George Sellios of Massachussets, who has built the grungy, king-hell Mona Lisa of model railroad towns: the Franklin and South Manchester Railroad. The massive, 23 feet by 42 feet HO-scale layout is legend among model railroaders. Using the touch of a neurosurgeon and the patience of a sniper, Stellios has let no grubby detail escape his sprawling town, from hobos taking a leak in Houligan's Alley to the pigeons scattered on the roof of the Brownsville Depot.

Spend a few minutes online perusing the photos of various scenes in the grimy, Depression-era cityscape, and you'll feel like showering off the dust. Sellios offers kits made from several individual scenes within the layout at his website, finescaleminiatures.com

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