Masters of their universe 

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

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Then there are those wild-eyed anarchists who freely mix and match the details of their layouts without regard to history, scale or physical accuracy. They're called freelancers. Anything goes. "If I like it, it's mine," says Gyles, reciting the freelancer's manifesto with a mischievous grin. Obviously, the lack of a rigid set of design criteria can be a powerful lure to the more freewheeling personality who prefers to let his imagination and sense of humor run amok on the rails, giving him total dominion over not only the environment, but its very creation.

•••

At Downtown Deco, Pepprock tempers his ultra-detailed designs with a bit of stylistic fudging to allow their use in a wide range of eras. He's drawn to the architecture and style of the early 20th century (hence the company's name), but he wants to make sure his customers are not hemmed into a narrow chronological window. He has created replicas of several actual buildings, though many of his works are an amalgam of different structures.

"I try to make things generic enough so they'll fit in. East Coast, West Coast, any era right up to modern day," he says.

He's also aware of the space limitations inherent in most layouts. Modelers tend to use the bulk of their space for scenery, track and various features such as bridges, trestles, tunnels and forests. Downtown real estate is even more scarce than in real life.

Urban buildings of the Metals Bank style are usually long, tall and narrow. In order to maintain realism but fit more buildings into less space, he uses a technique called "selective compression." He compares it to buildings in Disneyland, which give the impression of being full-sized with an impressive façade, but with a footprint nowhere near as big as the real thing. Think Haunted Mansion and the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle.

Selective compression is one valuable tool in a bag of tricks Pepprock developed during his stint as a scenic artist for the film industry in Hollywood, a short-lived career that was long on adventure.

He recalls a gang movie he worked on, filmed in part on location in East Los Angeles, where things got out of hand. "I was an on-set painter. We were painting tombstones for a graveyard scene."

The crew apparently was impinging on gang turf, people got nervous, words were exchanged. "The caterer wound up getting shot in the leg," he says with a chuckle.

Like many creative souls, Pepprock has other talents. During his Hollywood period in the mid-'80s, he played guitar in a few rock bands, rubbing elbows with dozens of big-haired musicians who created the notorious hard rock scene on the Sunset Strip. In Missoula, he pinned a few ears back with the band Shangri-La Speedway in the mid-'90s, and he currently writes, records and jams with hard rockers Letters to Luci. He is also the busy father of two teenage daughters, one of whom just started her first year of college.

Still, the miniatures business takes up most of his time. Downtown Deco is a one-horse operation; he does all the tedious scutwork like ordering supplies, accounting, packaging and shipping products. Although he's not into model railroading, Pepprock can definitely relate to the people who buy his products through his online store at downtowndeco.com.

"People spend so much time on it, but it's just a thing. Like mowing your lawn or fishing or camping or driving a speedboat," he says. "When you think about Michelangelo, people said he was a nut, but painting the Sistine Chapel was just a thing. It can definitely be an obsession."

click to enlarge Joe Gyles and Rich Blacketer work at the Treasure Chest in Missoula, where model railroad fanatics tend to congregate. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Joe Gyles and Rich Blacketer work at the Treasure Chest in Missoula, where model railroad fanatics tend to congregate.

It's not clear if he's referring to model railroaders, or to himself.

"It gives us our humanity. The weird stuff."

•••

The Missoula Model Railroad Club is headquartered, appropriately, in the Drummond Depot at Fort Missoula. Of the 35 or so members, only a handful are active in the club, reports MMRC president Mike Brown. He's an O-gauge man, having received a Lionel model train set when he was 6 years old.

Longtime Missoula attorney R.H. "Ty" Robinson spearheaded the relocation of the depot from Drummond to the Fort in 1982. The MMRC was able to secure a long-term lease on the baggage room and meets there monthly. The club also opens it up to the public twice a month for "Run Days." The dates and times are listed on their website, missoulamodelrail.org.

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