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Model Citizens:
Forsyth businesses put up big displays for holidays
from the Billings Gazette, Dec 15, 2006 ~ by Jim Schaefer ~ Photo by Larry Meyer
Many Eastern Montana towns have Christmas traditions, including parades of lights, decorating contests and community bazaars.

In Forsyth, however, two businessmen have built on their love of nostalgia to create displays that have drawn holiday visitors to their stores for as many as 25 years.

The longest-running display, located at Carquest, is an electric train layout, complete with miniature buildings including barns, colonial houses and covered bridges.

Mike Blakesley, who manages the store owned by his father, Bruce, has been putting the display together, with help from his friend Ray Deering, since the early 1980s.

Blakesley's "O-gauge" trains range in age from the 50-year-old Lionel set he inherited from his grandfather to a more recent acquisition, a "Polar Express" engine and coal car he received for his birthday a couple of years ago. His grandfather's train was the beginning of the display, which has grown exponentially over the years.

Glen Blakesley bought the train in 1956 and would set it up in his bar, Blakesley's Cigar Store, each Christmas. The green-and-red-accented train originally circled the Christmas tree Blakesley decorated each year.

Various buildings, including a scale model of Forsyth's Roxy Theatre, create a streetscape that recalls downtown Forsyth in the 1940s. The downtown structures were built from scratch by Ray Deering, who also constructed the table under the layout.

The four sets of trains running on more than 500 feet of track pull various cargo - refrigerated box cars, tankers and flatbeds hauling farm equipment. While the trains were originally controlled by board-mounted transformers and switches, Blakesley has converted to a wireless remote system. With the remote, he can operate track switches, control the speed and direction of trains, and stop or start any of them from the parts counter in the store.

It takes about two weeks of evenings and weekends to put the display together. The trains come mostly from a store in Denver, but the buildings come from wherever he can find them, including a couple of craft stores in Billings. He has also acquired some from stores he has visited in places as far away as Florida.

Mike Blakesley said he has "model train fever," and his eight engines and 60 cars prove his dedication. He concedes that his collection would pale in comparison to those of others, but he isn't finished yet.

The display draws visitors from the area each year, and Blakesley said he gets the most questions from kids. Forsyth is a railroad town, so he has to pay attention to the way he configures his trains. Veteran railroaders have corrected him about the proper placement of tanker cars for safe transportation and the way equipment is loaded on freight cars.

A few blocks away, at Clark Hardware, Cal MacConnel has a collection of 104 buildings that create a miniature village. The display fills all four of the windows in his store, and he has 30 other buildings he hasn't yet incorporated into the scene. MacConnel, who purchased the business in 1988, has been building the display since a former employee noticed that Ace Hardware listed the buildings in their wholesale catalogue and talked him into buying a few. That was seven years ago, and he has added to the collection every year.

"I almost wish they would quit offering them," MacConnel said, "because maybe then I'd quit buying them."

His town includes homes, barns, windmills and businesses - but no jail.

"Someone came in a couple of years ago and wanted to buy a miniature of a jail for a friend who is a police officer," he said. "But I told her this is a happy town; we don't need a jail."

Also included in the tiny town is a harbor, made from a highly polished mirror. It's home to several boats and a pier. The display not only brings locals to the store to see what he has added each year, but it also often brings people such as a couple who came from Miles City on a recent Saturday. The husband, whose sales route includes Forsyth, brought his wife to the store so she could see it.

One of the caretakers of the Christmas display is Clark, a mild-mannered tomcat who lives in the store and greets all the customers, especially those willing to offer a well-placed scratch. When MacConnel acquired Clark about six years ago, the cat would walk among the buildings, look in the windows and occasionally pick up one of the tiny residents of the town and fling it into other parts of the store. MacConnel has managed to break Clark of that habit.

Neither Blakesley nor MacConnel plans to quit adding to their collections, but room and time are always a concern. The use of valuable sales space during the peak season and the weeks that go into preparing the displays include a lot of tedious details, but the admiring looks of the kids - and the kids at heart - seem to make all the work worthwhile.

Note: A couple of small changes were made in this article to correct a couple of small factual errors and supply more information.