SALEM — The model railroad layout under the main Christmas trees in the Oregon Capitol rotunda every year is the brainchild of the late former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh and, in part, is the handiwork of prisoners.
Don Curtis, who taught vocational training, woodworking and cabinetry at Oregon State Correctional Institution from 1969 to 1999, was first asked to set up trains and a miniature scene to go under the tree in 1984.
“We had some very talented men at the institution that really got into the project and did a great job,” Curtis said in a phone interview this week.
Many of the miniatures — such as a scale version of the Bush House in Salem — were built by prisoners in the woodworking shop.
That, too, was a request from the governor, Curtis said.
“Our first layout in 1984 was really sort of modest, and someone asked, I think it was in the paper, someone asked Gov. Atiyeh what he thought of this,” Curtis said.
Atiyeh said he liked the layout, but that he couldn’t wait to see models of historic Salem homes the next year, Curtis said.
“Guess what we did the next year?” Curtis said. “We made the models of historic Salem homes.”
There’s a model of Salem’s Victorian-era Deepwood house, and the railroad station is a replica of the one in Salem around the turn of the century.
The structures are built from scratch — no kits involved. Curtis also made the natural features. Azalea branches are especially good for making tiny trees, he says.
Devoted to making the replicas of historic buildings to scale, Curtis raised some eyebrows when he went up to the bank building in Independence with a tape measure. He began sizing up the building’s features and, after some inquiries from the bank manager, eventually was invited in for a tour.
The trains themselves are antique American Flyer models, most of them from the 1950s, Curtis said.
Curtis said they chose the American Flyer trains because the company was owned by A.C. Gilbert. Gilbert, a doctor who was born in Salem and went on to develop a host of classic children’s toys, is the namesake of the Gilbert House Children’s Museum in Salem.
There are a number of locomotives available for use — if the one that is currently running around the tree “gets tired,” Curtis says, another can take its place.
The seasons in the Christmas layout have changed over the years, Curtis said. It was a summer scene for a while, then winter for about 20 years. But it was hard to keep all of the fake snow clean, so Curtis redid the set to depict autumn.
The whole structure sits on plywood boxes and can easily be packed up when the season’s over.
Curtis works with Alan Bennett, a train enthusiast from Keizer, to put the scene together every year. After more than 30 years, what keeps him setting up the miniatures?
“Well, you know, it’s just a real joy to see the reaction of the children when they come to the Capitol building, and not only to see the tree, but they come to see the train and operate the train underneath the tree,” Curtis said. “So that’s sort of an encouragement to us.”