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05-27-03: Knights of Columbus puts history back on track

The Daily Standard
    COLDWATER - It'll be a blast from the past this weekend for many local residents when they get their first look at a special model train display to be unveiled at the annual Knights of Columbus (K of C) picnic in Coldwater.
    Spectators can bend down and get eye level with a replica of Main Street, imagining themselves window shopping in downtown Coldwater in the 1950s.
    "That's what it's all about," said K of C member Ralph Gels. "We think people will come see it and say, OI remember that place ... .' "
    Not one, but two trains will circle through a realistic likeness of the village's businesses and homes - just as they dotted the town more than 50 years ago. The display is part of a special Ohio bicentennial project completed by K of C members.
    Construction on the approximate 12-by-24-foot display began in January and was completed last week. Each building was built to scale by using a model railroad scale rule, after taking measurements of the buildings still standing.
    The idea for the project was born from a similar undertaking at the county courthouse a few years ago.
    For the courthouse project, Coldwater resident Gene Eckstein donated a remarkably accurate replica of Holy Trinity Catholic Church of Coldwater. The church, complete with stained windows, was borrowed from Eckstein and is a major attraction in the K of C display.
    K of C members used old and recent pictures of the town to guide them in construction of the buildings, they said. Mike Hogan said he videotaped some of the current buildings before starting his portion of the work.
    "I got a few eyeballs around town especially when I was videotaping the grain elevator (Coldwater Grain Co.)," he said with a grin. "I'm sure people wondered what I was doing."
    Vince Kanney said he went to the library for help, used pictures and talked to former business owners, "and some of it was made from memory," he added with a laugh.
    In February, some of the creators sat down with a half dozen former Coldwater businessmen to get a feel for the project.
    "We listened to them critique our ideas and give suggestions. It was really helpful," Gels said.
    The elders began reminiscing and poured over stories from long ago, recalling pranks they played when they were just kids. "Things you wouldn't want to put in the paper," Gels said with a grin.
    Kanney, who used to work at one of the old businesses  - the former Schoch Paint Store Inc. on Main Street - was joined by his wife, Marilyn, in creating a majority of the downtown buildings. Gels' wife, Janet, also contributed by making nearly 100 trees to line the village streets.
    Some of the buildings are made of cardboard donated from Reynolds & Reynolds of Celina. Others were constructed by using cereal boxes turned inside out and painted to look like brick or wood. Plastic items from kids toys as well as craft supplies were used for windows, doors and other details, which made the creation come to life.
    "I learned contact cement works much better than regular carpenter glue," Kanney said as he eyed the finished work. "The glue didn't stick too well."
    The hardest building to make due to its architecture, Kanney said, was the former People's Bank Company on the corner of South First and Main streets, now occupied by attorney David Bruns, A Personal Touch and Roger's Flowers & Gifts. 
    Hogan, perhaps the real model train enthusiast in the organization, also helped with several buildings and takes credit for the lighted water tower that blinks.
    Led by a Nickel Plate steam engine and a New York Central diesel engine, the trains will weave simultaneously through the village by electronic controls. Even the engines and the box cars were assembled by hand by cooperative effort of K of C members, Gels added.
    None of the men who volunteered their time had ever tackled such a project, but together they fed off each other's ideas to get the job done, Gels said.
    "You do what you know how to do and learn the rest," he said.
    The entire layout is positioned atop 4-by-8-foot pieces of plywood covered with Styrofoam and painted. Countless hours were spent painting, wiring and gluing objects into place at the former Agco Training Center on Sycamore Street. The men were allowed to meet there weekly, courtesy of village officials who now own the building.
    Gels admits the display is not an exact replica of the old town, but he believes people will enjoy seeing it. Drawing people to the church grounds for the K of C picnic on Saturday and Sunday and to the community picnic in August was the goal, he said.
    "Our main intention was to draw interest to the picnics," he said. "But I also hope to see people reliving the past, you know, remembering the good times back then."
    Others who worked on the project include Dave Klosterman, Gary Griesdorn, Jerry Turner and Chris Dues.


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