A model man|Jack Gillis’ mini creations mimic the real thing

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 25, 2009

While most builders dread cold, wet winter days, Jack Gillis says it’s his favorite time to work on his buildings.

In the last 45 or so years, he’s completed close to 200 structures — houses, stores, railroad stations — whatever strikes his fancy.

And all on his kitchen counter!

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Gillis’ work, you see, is in miniature. Anything he makes will easily fit on a table top.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

He made his first model in the 1960s when his son was in the hospital, and he bought some magazines to help pass the time. One was about model railroads and included photos of buildings, and he told himself, “I’m going to try to make one of them. So I made it.”

It was not unlike what he had grown up in — four rooms, a porch, a clothes line in the backyard and an outhouse, or toilet.

For ideas, he relies on photos he has taken or on pictures in magazines. Some are made to scale, while for others he relies on the eyeball (or scratch) method. It takes anywhere from a week to a month to make a model, depending on how detailed it is and how often he gets down to business.

Tools of the trade include scissors, Exacto blades, snips, a pocket knife — and the models are made of balsa wood, sucker and ice cream sticks and even Corn Flakes boxes. To seal the cracks on the few log houses he’s built, he uses water putty. He buys most of his material from Walters, a Wisconsin company, but some he creates from scraps.

He’s self-taught.

“All I ever made in shop in high school was a funnel.” He’s never built a full-size building, where “you might be off several inches and no one would ever know it — but in the little ones you can tell if it’s just a fraction of an inch.”

Gillis has never sold one of his creations. He gives them to family and friends. With the hours he spends, just the charges of his time would be prohibitive if he tried to sell one. The average cost of decorations and essentials for a building, such as tin and shingles and miniature signs, runs about $100.

His replicas include some that are special to him and his wife, the former Betty Steen, and include Steen’s Grocery & Market and her family home on Porters Chapel Road and a house his family lived in at Benoit. Local constructions include Smith’s Station that was between Bovina and Edwards and Yerger’s Store at Mound.

Probably his favorite constructions are of the house the Lincoln family lived in in Indiana and an old-timey country store. He’s built one village, which his son owns.

Gillis does the whole package — planning, construction, even painting — because Betty says, “He claims I don’t do it right.”  But he added, “She doesn’t bother me when I’m making a model.”

Gillis grew up at Glass, north of Yokena. But, when World War II began, the family moved to town where his mother ran a rooming house. His father, however, wanted to farm, so they returned to the Glass area (now LeTourneau) for eight or 10 years. He went to school at Jeff Davis and Jett, and when he was a senior his parents moved to Benoit in the Delta. In order to stay with his classmates at Jett and graduate with them, he lived with the Meades on Porters Chapel Road.

After graduation, he worked for Rose Oil for six months, then was hired as a lineman by the telephone company. He retired 40 years later as supervisor of the area from Fayette to Valley Park.

Gillis, who is recovering from a recent heart surgery, said he has no current plans — “Just whatever comes along. I haven’t thought of anything in particular.”

But you can be sure that winter weather will probably find him at the kitchen counter with more buildings under construction.