Stephens finds right track in life with model trains

JACKSON’S MILL – A Parkersburg man’s labor of love was part of the Jackson’s Jubilee on Friday in Lewis County.

Working just outside of the historical area of West Virginia University Jackson’s Mill, Joseph Stephens of Parkersburg spent several hours Friday morning erecting a model railroad display of near-legendary proportions.

Stephens tightened screws, connected wires and made sure everything was just right in preparation for the four trains and trolleys to wind their way over 120 feet of G-gauge track.

He called it a labor of love.

“It’s nice to get up in the morning and not think of this as a chore,” he said.

The diorama will be on display this weekend at the Jackson’s Mill Jubilee, no matter the weather. The display is part of what Stephens calls “botanical architecture.”

“These trains run in the rain, the snow,” he said, “just as long as you have a clear track.”

Stephens is part of the Kentucky-based Applied Imagination. The crew travels the country erecting even larger model train displays at gardens in New York, Washington, D.C., and Columbus. They use cedar scraps to build the foundation of the railroad displays, some of which can take two months or longer to construct.

Stephens never saw a career in model trains as his future, saying he never even had such an item when he was growing up.

“As a kid, I found other things to get into,” he said.

But when his son was about 6-years old, he decided to buy a small train set to circle the family Christmas tree.

“The train was still in the living room in April,” Stephens said. “The tree was gone, but the train was still there. My wife said I had to get it out of the living room.”

That train set eventually found its way to the front yard, and like most things planted outside, it continued to grow and grow. Now there is enough track in the front yard to stretch across a football field, and the trains run on schedule, much to the delight of passersby.

“A lot of people come by, and I enjoy seeing the kids’ faces light up when they see it,” Stephens said.

His love of trains eventually led him to open his own hobby store in the Parkersburg area. The business is a family affair, and Stephens jokes that it has kept his sons from indulging in video games.

“It started out as a hobby, and now I am working with some of the most prestigious artists (Applied Imagination) in the country,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to get paid for doing something you love.”

Staged in Lewis County, Jackson’s Mill Jubilee continues through Sunday. The event features heritage arts and crafts, music and food.

The historical area of WVU Jackson’s Mill is also open. Admission is $5 per person and children under 3 are admitted free.