- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

NOVI, Mich. (AP) - A group of model railroading enthusiasts at Fox Run retirement community have their work cut out. They’ve already laid down 15,000 matchstick-size pieces of railroad ties, every fifth one secured by four tiny metal spikes the size of splinters.

The group is crafting a working model of the stretch from Plymouth to Holly, 30 miles of the Pere Marquette railroad line as it would have appeared in June 1950, the last year steam engines ran on the line, according to The Detroit News (https://bit.ly/1n2GU6U ).

“We have to do it in 54 feet, so we had to crunch everything,” said Ed MacDowell, chairman of the Fox Run Model Railroad Club, which has taken over a room in one of the clubhouses here. “We compressed all the towns and will have Novi as our feature town.”

The members of the club are dedicated to their task of re-creating the history of one of Metro Detroit’s largest and fastest-growing communities. As the city continues to expand, the railroad and other markers of the past have been forgotten or overlooked by many newcomers, club members say.

That’s not so for the residents of Fox Run, who are reviving the stories of the city’s humble beginnings.

“At the time we’re modeling, Novi had a downtown population of about 200 and maybe the whole town had about a thousand people,” said MacDowell, 83. “Those times are long gone, and most people who live here now have no clue. It was a completely different world.”

After working on the model railroad for more than five years, the 25 club members have plenty of work left to do. But they’ve also drawn the attention of folks with the city.

“Prior to the railroad, the urban locations were either in Northville or Farmington, which were genuinely small towns,” said Roy Prentice, former chairman of the Novi Historical Commission and manager of the city’s historical Tollgate Farm, kept up now by Michigan State University.

“When the railroad came through, it really made Novi a locus of activity.”

The area went from mostly farmsteads with dirt roads in the 1800s to a center of activity for transporting the main products of the time, apples and wool, to other areas, he said.

“The train was lickety-split and could carry tons of produce with ease,” Prentice said. “That was really the turning point for Novi. Before that it was a sleepy little town.”

Today Novi is the fourth-fastest growing city in Metro Detroit, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The population jumped from under 10,000 in 1970 to nearly 57,000 by 2012. The city has sprawled to about 32 square miles around Grand River Avenue, Interstate 96 and Interstate 275.

Mayor Bob Gatt credits the opening of Twelve Oaks Mall and the construction of the freeways for boosting residential interest in the city during that time.

“Twelve Oaks spurred an economic boom that has never stopped,” said Gatt. “I’ve been in this community for 40 years. I’ve seen it grow from essentially an apple orchard when I started working here in the 1970s.”

Now, Novi is a hub for business, with many retail establishments and restaurants as well as being home to many automotive and technology companies. Lauren Royston, the city’s economic development coordinator, credits the mixture for keeping Novi afloat during the recession and says the plan is to continue to promote diversity among businesses.

But history is also an important part of the city. Many of the old buildings, including the train depot on the Pere Marquette line, the Novi Special water tower and the Methodist church, are still part of the city skyline.

“Our past is part of our present. We have taken painstaking steps to preserve it,” Gatt said. “We’ll never forget the history, and we’re always going to keep certain historical things alive in Novi because that’s who we are.”

Staying true to that history is important for the residents at Fox Run, too.

To make sure they stick to their plans, the outlines of the historical buildings have been drawn along the tracks and old photos the group found during their research are taped to the walls. They use the photos as references for when they are re-creating the buildings. They typically start with models that they can buy from catalogs and then deconstruct them to create accurate versions of the real things.

“It’s probably 10 more years of work,” said MacDowell, 83. “We want to get it to where when you walk in, you’ll immediately recognize where you are.”

Former Shelby Township resident Gil Knight, 77, is the custom builder. It took him months to re-create a true-to-history version of the Novi Methodist Church, before it lost its steeple, for the line. He’s also done the detail work on the Novi Special watertower, right down to the yellow Indianapolis 500 race car on the side.

He’s not afraid to take his time.

“It’s something fun to do, to make it look like it used to and to make this thing run like we want it to,” Knight said. “You don’t want to get it done, you know. It gives us something fun to do. That’s why there’s no big rush.”


Information from: The Detroit News, https://detnews.com/

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