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Small Town: Wakarusa, IN, five feet to the inch

These Parts

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There is no small note of pride in DeVon Rose's voice when he calls his Bird's Eye View Museum "the world's largest display made from toothpicks and popsicle sticks." Like any town, it started out small. Twenty-eight years ago, when Rose was living in Elkhart, Indiana, he built his first model: an accessory for his sons' model railroad setup. It was a large model of his father-in-law's workplace, a grain mill on the outskirts of Wakarusa, a small town ten miles south of Elkhart. Rose found that he liked creating this new, smaller version of reality. His two sons liked it too, and with their enthusiastic help Rose continued building: a house, a store, a church. At some point he decided to go ahead and do the whole town.

Rose's house in Elkhart didn't have enough room for the whole town of Wakarusa, even at the scale of five feet to the inch. The only place Rose could find with a basement big enough was an old brick house on a corner in--Wakarusa! It's just down the street from the business district, the focus of his obsession.

So far his bird's-eye-view town covers most of four large wooden tables built in the corners of a large basement room: three square blocks of downtown, and a bunch of miscellaneous buildings. He's spent half his lifetime so far (re)building the town. When he retires, five years from now, he plans to devote himself to the project full-time.

The first thing he'll do when you visit is guide you to a board covered with samples and descriptions of the materials he uses: toothpicks, popsicle sticks, cardboard, steel wool, and Mercurochrome, shoe polish, and furniture stain for coloring. Rose's use of materials demonstrates an abiding thriftiness: he gets the wire for tree trunks, for example, from old tires. He points to the small pieces of wood making up the trim on one house and says, "You can get 13 of these from a toothpick and still throw some of it away." He does buy popsicle sticks, though, 1,000 at a time, a quantity he says goes a good long way.

Rose cuts and scores wood or cardboard to make it look like planks, bricks, shingles; then he adds the touches that make the models look so accurate. Rose is a professional draftsman, and the eye for detail required by his work is apparent in the fruits of his hobby: roofs sag, doorways lean, and weather stains discolor walls. A free-standing barber pole actually revolves. You feel like leaning down to the windows (many of which are illuminated from within) to see what the occupants are up to.

"Now watch the churches," Rose says, pointing to four town churches, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on one panel as they never have in real life. He leaves the room, and the overhead lights dim. Suddenly the Bible Baptist Church casts a pattern of color onto the ground outside its stained-glass windows (made of cellophane candy wrappers).

"I don't care how long it takes me to do something, I just want it to look right when I'm done," says Rose. He's not kidding. One of his churches is constructed of more than 2,200 separate pieces. And to Rose, looking right means reproducing each building exactly as it appears--warts and all. Before starting a model he goes out and measures and sketches the actual building (he surveyed much of the downtown area in the mid-60s); each model represents its real counterpart on the day it was measured.

Rose points to a solid and stolid bank on one of his completed downtown blocks. A wooden shutter hangs askew from the rear of the building. "Even on the bank here the top hinge is broken on the shutter," says Rose. "The president saw this and asked me if I wouldn't change it, but I said no, because that's how it was on the day I measured it." One woman, worried that Rose would forever memorialize her as a careless home owner, refused to let him measure her house until she repaired a broken porch railing.

Maybe that's why he doesn't get that many local visitors--who wants to remember all those broken hinges and railings, the mismatched paint jobs and sagging roofs? Not to mention all the dilapidated houses and sheds and outhouses that now exist only in Rose's basement? "This building is torn down, this one is torn down, this one's torn down," Rose says, pointing. "And a whole lot of 'em have been remodeled."

One building he has not yet re-created is his own house. He says he plans to, someday; and when he does get it set up, on that corner of bird's-eye Wakarusa, I will be very interested in peeking into the tiny basement window.

DeVon Rose's Bird's Eye View Museum is at 325 S. Elkhart St., Wakarusa, Indiana (the museum entrance is at the rear). It is open, as he says, "evenings and weekends by chance or appointment." Admission is $2.50 for ages 16 to 80, $1.25 for children 8 to 16, free for everyone else. Call 219-862-2367. For information on the Elkhart area, see the Visitors' Guide on pages 16-22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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