Borrowers Aboard!

What to do in Maine. Downeast weekend, part 1

A devoted Mary Norton fan as a child, I saw implements and opportunities for Borrowers everywhere I looked.

The Borrowers are the about six-inch tall imaginary (maybe) humans that feature in Norton’s series, from The Borrowers, to The Borrowers Aloft ( when they head off in a raspberry basket and helium balloon) Borrowers Afloat, (down river in a teakettle) and Borrowers Afield.

Although it might be a tight squeeze for Borrowers, Harold (Buz) and Helen Beal’s 900 square feet of operating rail lines, homes, shops, banks, hospitals, waterfront and mills seems a likely residence for them. Even if there are no Borrowers hiding beside the three thousand feet of track, there is a sense of animation and life. The towns, cities and seaports are painstakingly recreated without kits, and many are modelled after existing or historic buildings. There is the old Sears building, Bangor’s brick Union Station, and the local bank. One house was built at the request of the original owner’s great-great granddaughter, who lives out-of-state but wanted it memorialized in this replica world.

A miniscule version of Stephen King’s home in Bangor boasts tiny slate tiles. They certainly look like slate, but close inspection makes the viewer wonder, how can slate possibly be cut so thin? Buz explains, “I just thought about it, and said, yep, 120 grit sandpaper will work.” He is correct. The tumbled rocks on the river’s edge look exactly like a pile of rocks, various shades of black and grey, each a different size and shape. These were not popped from a mold. “I took a big hunk of Plaster of Paris, smashed it up, then soaked ‘em in something dark or black for a few days. Tipped ‘em out to dry, and there they are.”

The Maine Central Model Railroad operates in Jonesport, Maine in nondescript white building in the front yard of Buz and Helen’s home. Drive up and chances are it is steaming around and buffs are exclaiming over the details. Even in the long winter months Buz, Helen and their nephew run the MCMR as prototype railroads are run: on schedule. Each train has an assigned number of cars, that it switches in its allotted time, as any railroad would do. The HO gauge rolling stock (1/87 scale) includes over 400 freight cars and 20 diesel engines.

Will the drunks miss the train? Because there they are, four extremely happy gentlemen leaving the tavern and heading, with arms entwined and listing southard, towards the station. Another building is charred and blackened, fire crew still on the scene, ambulance door wide open and a dog running alongside by barking. “They just got that put out the other day,” Buz says, “Piled traffic up terrible.”

His wife Helen made the over four thousand trees from twigs and branches gathered nearby. She also cut over four hundred windows for the skyscraper disguising a structural post. This couple has spent many hours palnning, painting, building, playing, and they never get tires of sharing their world.

Everywhere one looks there are snips of live, frozen vignettes of day-to-day experience. But look away for a minute and surely that arm moved, and didn’t I just see the woman pushing the baby carriage turn to look at me? Every figure is busily engaged in some activity. The solitary figure sitting below the bridge watching the river flow is an exception. Buz says emphatically, “Everyone works here, nobody sets around, yessuh,” I ask him who the man by the bridge is. Buz peers at him. “Huh, we’ll have to kick him out of town.”

Buz is on the right.

There are over 400 figures, fishing, boating, driving, or hiking the 4,000 foot high (six to us) mountains. Buz’ painted sky is slightly overcast and grey with clouds. The water sparkles and reflects, and a damp trail is left behind as the geese walk up the stream bank. Detail, detail and finer detail. I have been twice now, and will visit again, meeting new characters, seeing new scenes. Maybe I’ll go at night, when sleepy riders doze in the passenger cars, and soft light streams from the windows of the houses. And maybe I’ll see Homily wink from a private railcar as it rolls by on the way to the mountains.

Want to visit? The Maine Central Model Railroad is about seven miles off Route One on Route 187, and four miles east of Jonesport. If you want to call, the number is 207 497 2255.

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3 comments on “Borrowers Aboard!

  1. Karen: Thank you so much for this entertaining entry. I immediately wanted to make something to add to their town until it sunk in that it was in Jonesport. Not apt to get there very often BUT, what a cool idea and it is wonderful to know it exists. Maybe there is a space somewhere that a miniature community village could be started. My mind is percolating…….

  2. Karen, Your story is great. I want to get in the car and head out, now. I also thought it would be fun to make something and then thought of the scale, 1/87. I remember doing 1/12 scale for doll houses. I don’t think I could go smaller, just can’t even imagine how it is done. Guess I will have to take a trip to Jonesport someday.
    Thanks for sharing.

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