Miniature Train Displays That Draw From Nature

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A small company called Applied Imagination works year-round to bring holiday magic to model-train displays at the Conservatory in Washington, D.C., and the New York Botanical Garden, to name just two.

The trains travel in a seasonal wonderland, through tunnels and over bridges, and past miniature versions of the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, the Brooklyn Bridge and Yankee Stadium.

The scaled-down structures are built mostly of twigs, leaves, bark and gourds that were collected near the company's home factory on a wooded ridge in northern Kentucky.

On a recent visit there, Applied Imagination's founder, Paul Busse, had plenty of magical materials on hand — there were thousands of sycamore leaves just outside his front door.

"This sycamore leaf, the one I just picked up here, is over a foot across," Busse said. "So we'll press a bunch of these for next year."

For its elaborate model-train layouts, Busse uses large G-scale train sets — that's "G" for garden size. His company's 20 year-round employees work in a workshop and some sheds, located in Kentucky a few ridges south of the Ohio River.

On Cindy Johnson's workbench, a model of Santa's toy factory looked more like a contraption in its own right.

"It's got moving parts in it, which is new for me," Johnson said.

"So Paul has had to wait for me to learn mechanical engineering to get this building done," she said with a laugh.

Inside the shop are tiny motors and LED lights — but it's mostly organic.

The sycamore leaves make splendid sails for Santa's windmill. Johnson is also making a pirate vessel — and the prow of the ship is a large gourd. The gourd was grown by Busse's friend across the road.

People often help out, he says — they leave truckloads of stuff out in the front yard.

"The hollow logs that are out there right now came from a neighbor," Busse said. "It's awesome for us to make a tunnel out of it."

In this business, bark is valuable. So are grapevines, pine cones, lotus pods, thorns and lichen.

As a result, Johnson doesn't walk in the woods these days. She searches.

"My husband doesn't like going with me anymore, because I'm always on the ground going, 'Oh, acorn caps, look,' " Johnson said.

For this year's New York show, Busse designed a model of the city's splendid old Penn Station. The real train station was torn down in the early 1960s. He's used honeysuckle for the columns; the skylights are crafted from basket reed. The marble, he said, is made from the leaves of the sea grape plant.

"That's what I love about the texture of the plants," Busse said.

"You put them in this architectural format, and your eye is telling you one thing, and you know it's something else."

Asked how he knows what plants could possibly be passed off as marble, Busse laughed and said, "Oh, about 20 years of trying stuff."

This year's show in Washington includes an updated White House, one with a swing set and a victory garden. For a show in Chicago, there's a replica of the Obama family's home in Hyde Park.

After he sets up a display and the trains are running, Busse says he likes to walk around and watch the people.

"I'll never forget, this lady had a baby carriage and pushed the kid up close to the display," Busse said. "And he just leaned forward, eyes in amazement.

"And I said, 'Whatever drew his attention?' Because he doesn't know what he's looking at. I said, 'That's the magic, is whatever enthralled him.' "

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