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Riding the rails in Spring Hill

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Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:44 PM
SPRING HILL -

Doug Brainard's garden is history. Not in the sense that he doesn't have it anymore, but rather it portrays a slice of life in Hernando County during the early 20th century.

Some 10 to 15 years ago, the 66-year-old financial adviser found a way to merge his two fondest past times: model railroading and gardening. And so, on the grounds of his Spring Hill home which encompasses 2 ½ acres, Brainard carved out a 12-by-60-foot section of his property and began replicating the historical town of Centralia.

Centralia was once located in northwestern Hernando County. It had a population of 2,000 or more and during its heyday thrived as one of Florida's champion logging and lumber industry regions.

A popular place, the town had its own commissary run by George Gamble. There people would stop to congregate around the potbelly stove and, of course, to shop. There was a silent movie house called the Flicker Theater, a bar, a boarding house owned by the Varn family, a Greek bakery, a school and a non-denominational church. But most of all, there were the buildings that were necessary to support the logging and lumber industry.

"It's a ghost town now, only foundations remain, Brainard said."

But after he did some research, looking at old photographs and using his imagination, Brainard took on the task of constructing a condensed version of Centralia outside his Spring Hill home.

Utilizing various materials for construction, "Everything was made to be outdoors. But the climate in Florida can really take its toll," he said.

Brainard looked into special material, some of it coming from a German company. Crafting cardboard, plastic, cement board, the town really started to take shape, he said.

Laying the tracks was a chore. A foundation of pulverized granite rock was needed to support the brass rails of the train tracks. The kind of rock that you would actually find under real train tracks today, he said.

Everything was built according to the scale of his model trains. "They're G-scale, he says, 1:24." One inch equals 24 inches in real life.

Three lines travel in the model town, two which make the full 360-degree route. Part of the route actually goes into his garage, tunneling through the exterior wall.

On the other side, the train runs alongside the interior of his garage and then exits through another tunnel near the garage door. He also has a point-to-point train within the town that shuttles limerock to a simulated cement plant within the landscape.

It's that landscape that has piqued the interest of members from the Spring Hill Garden Club.

On Tuesday afternoon in the Fellowship Hall at Forest Oaks Lutheran Church, Brainard gave a primer course on early Hernando County and Centralia. He wanted those attending to get a sense of what the county was like 100 years ago.

"It's a show and tell," he said. "A show and tell of garden railroading."

Part of the program included a field trip to Brainard's home. There garden club members had the opportunity to see what Brainard had created.

They were greeted by the sound of a train whistle made by one of his model trains called the Mogul. You could see the amazement in the members of the club who had never seen the project before. Winter resident Alexis Hoelzauer said it was "simply amazing."

* * * * *

Brainard's use of Florida-friendly plants included some 60 species. Plant names such as Alyssum, sedum, mini-mondo grass, juniper and Dahlberg daisies were just a few.

Each plant was crafted for its use to mimic the life-size. Everything was to scale so his trains wouldn't look out of proportion to the scene.

Cedar trees were dwarfed through a process similar to the bonsai-method. The miniature trees were used to simulate pines and cypress. Holly trees were shaped like citrus trees and Brainard hand-painted small beads orange and hung them on the trees to simulate citrus.

As the trains rolled through the landscape, his garden came alive. Chugging along, the train carrying simulated logs made from a sculpting resin made its way through the miniature landscape and passed little people, critters and tools.

"I used a lot of Ilex Schilling and Japanese Boxwood. Basically any plant with small leaves," he said.

Controlling the trains was no problem for Brainard. A remote control turned the transformer on and off. The garden club members stood in awe as they gazed over his historical landscape.

There were quite a few succulents such as sedum that were used.

"I put in a dessert area, dry areas of sand hills," he said. Small cactus dotted that terrain.

There were so many different plants in the landscape, Brainard printed up a plant list for curious garden club members wanting to know what he used in his creation. Wandering fig was another species that was noticeable.

Looking at his garden from a topographic view, Brainard included Tooke Lake and Weeki Wachee. He even added a small mermaid to make that distinction. Tooke Lake was a place where loggers and those who worked in the saw mill had a place to swim.

Nevertheless, with his garden railroad came the responsibility of not only maintaining the plants, but also the tracks. The weather can take its toll and you have to make sure the tracks don't accumulate oxidation, he stressed.

Working in the garden still had its pluses, Brainard beamed.

"The main reason I like to work with plants … they don't talk back."

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