Models of yesteryear Memories come in small packages

Published 11:53 am Monday, October 3, 2011

As a younger man, Jack Gillis bought coal from the Ryan’s Coal Company yard at Levee and Washington streets. As a child, he ran down a muddy Glass Road to play with friends on the old Lynn houseboat near LeTourneau on the Mississippi River.

Now, a scale model of the old Ryan Coal business and a couple of “river rat” shanty boats are among the miniatures Gillis has made and donated to the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum — treasures soon to be housed at the Vicksburg Transportation Museum to be opened at City Front.

Model shotgun houses, a dogtrot house and an unnamed store round out the collection.

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Gillis loves adding details to his models, and pointed out tiny seats inside the outhouses behind each little home, the skiffs tied up to the river rats and the open doors on the dogtrot house.

“My mother had an aunt that lived in a dogtrot house,” he said. “She had two girls and two boys, and the girls slept on one side of the house and the boys slept on the other. In the summer, they’d leave the windows and those center doors open to try to keep it cool.”

Museum owner Lamar Roberts said the models were prepared for the “City of Vicksburg” exhibit that will be recreated at the downtown attraction planned for the old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot on Levee Street.

“What he’s doing is the Mulberry Street section, but these kinds of houses were actually all over town,” Roberts said.

The transportation museum, which Roberts has planned and worked to establish for 10 years or more, is expected to open sometime this fall, but specifics are not yet set.

Renovation of the depot, which will also house offices of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau and the city’s Main Street Program, initially was set for completion July 1 but was delayed by the 2011 Mississippi River Flood. As the water level in Vicksburg rose to 57.1 feet, more than 14 feet above flood stage, the depot took on about four feet of water.

Renovation contractor Kenneth R. Thomspon Jr. was recently given a second extension to allow a sidewalk to be put in connecting the depot and an interpretive museum being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the nearby dry-docked MV Mississippi IV.

Roberts said he hoped soon after to begin moving items from his current Battlefield Museum site on North Frontage Road near the Vicksburg Military Park, and setting up the model railroads, including O and HO scale trains and others.

“The ideal time is during the slow tourist months,” which the holiday and winter seasons provide, he said. “We need to let the dust settle there first and then we’ll start.”

Construction of the nine models and their companion pieces took about three months, said Gillis, 82, who tinkered with them off and on as he had the time and inclination.

Gillis has been making models since the 1960s. For some early models he used corn flake boxes, but now he purchases most of his materials, including pieces of bass wood, from a Wisconsin company.

He works often from memory, but sometimes when traveling will see a house he likes, take a photograph and come back and start building.

Friends and acquaintances also make requests, proving measurements and other details of the original homes, and for the most part, Gillis gives them away.

Roberts said he “subsidized” this latest round of construction, which seemed to secure his claim.

“My grandkids have a fit over them,” Gillis said of his miniatures. “In fact, they wanted these but I told them no, they’re going to the museum.”