In Miniature

by Janet Thomas

Associate Editor

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    Ron Wolters has a talent for capturing history in a small way.

    It looks like a dusty, blustery day in an old western town. The wash is on the lines. Coal overflows its bin. Wood is stacked ready for the fireplace. Bits of newspaper complete with headlines are caught against the corners of wooden buildings. A rusty pipe carries drainage water across the shale street. Tarpaper peels from the roofs of the shanties. A dog strains on a leash barking at a cat. All in all it’s a typical street in a small town sometime in the early 1900s. The scene is not particularly unusual except that it is small enough to fit in a shoe box.

    The creator of this and other amazingly detailed replicas of gold mines, western streets, and old houses is Ron Wolters of the Rose Park First Ward, Salt Lake Rose Park Stake. Using slivers of wood, metal, and plaster, Ron builds delicate miniatures that preserve remnants of a former way of life in the western United States.

    “It’s fascinating to see him work with his hands,” said his mother, Leola. “He is so precise.” Ron’s fascination with models began when his parents bought him a little train set when he was 11 years old. He liked the train, but what really caught his attention were the miniature buildings and landscape pictures with model trains.

    His mother tells about the time the family car broke down several miles from town, near an old store ready for demolition. While dad, Royal, went to call someone to help with the car, Ron and his mother explored the old building. “Ron examined the ruined building carefully,” said his mother. “He even had me help take down the exact measurements of the rooms, the windows, the staircase, and we imagined what type of things were sold.” From the measurements and his memory, Ron constructed a miniature version of the country store. The rooms were to scale, and he even put the same type of window sashes and woodwork as in the original. He made it so the roof could be removed and recreated what he imagined the original might have looked like inside. Even though the building has since been torn down, Ron has preserved it in miniature.

    “I’ve always been interested in history,” said Ron. “I like to read about old mining towns and things that happened in those days. It’s fascinating to find out how life was lived a hundred years ago and compare it to now. In a way, I take myself back in time.”

    While others are preserving the past in word and in photographs, Ron’s miniatures often give a more vivid picture of a former day. “I like the miniature size,” said Ron. “If it were any bigger, I don’t think I would enjoy working with it as much.” Ron works with a scale of 1:87; that means 3.5 millimeters equals a foot. A building ends up about 5 inches high, and tools or small animals are barely larger than the head of a pin.

    Ron’s hobby requires that he use his imagination to make ordinary items appear to be something else. For example, the first project Ron built was a model grainery. He needed something to look like miniature corrugated metal siding. He gave it some thought, then used aluminum foil laid on top of some corduroy material and pressed into ridges with a fine-toothed comb. The result had the look of corrugated iron.

    Although Ron’s talents are not widely publicized, he did pick up a best of show award in woodworking at the Utah State Fair. His projects are often on display in craft shops in the Salt Lake City area.

    Because be grew up in Utah, Ron likes to research and photograph old mining towns. He then uses the information he gathers to guide him in reconstructing what the town might have been like many years ago. With styrofoam, plywood, plaster of paris, and small items from hobby stores, Ron is careful about detail. “I like to add enough detail so it looks like you could walk right into it. Sometimes I just get down at eye level and stare into it awhile and try to visualize what would look appropriate.” Perhaps that is Ron’s biggest talent. He has an ability to make a scene look real. There is an authenticity to his work, a feeling that any moment the screen door on some miniature shanty will swing open, or a tiny whistle will call the men back to the mines to work.

    Instead of just making a small-scale representation of a scene, Ron has captured some of the feeling of that time period. The shale sidehills he scrapes out of plaster of paris look amazingly like the hills of southern Utah. Instead of neat, orderly town areas, Ron’s miniatures have the careful casualness that real life creates—a bottle abandoned in a vacant lot, scrap lumber being split for kindling, a diminutive dog straining at his leash to get to a cat perched on a fence post—things that would actually exist in such a town.

    To do such detailed work, Ron has developed a great deal of patience. When not working on his models, he enjoys listening to music and getting out in Utah’s back country to hike, ski, or go camping. But wherever he goes, Ron is observant. Instead of just looking, he really sees.

    Ron’s capacity to see clearly has expanded into new dimensions since serving in the Arkansas Little Rock Mission. The experience he had spreading the gospel has given him insight into people that he grew to love and admire. Now when he creates the small towns and little scenes, he can imagine the type of people who once lived in the full-size version and what their lives might have been like. This second sight is valuable to an artist and allows him to preserve something of the heart as well as of earth and stone.

    To Ron Wolters, his model building is more than an interesting hobby. It has been a way of studying history and his heritage while preserving them in miniature.

    Photography by Craig Dimond