Thaxton Kell mounts the stone steps to the 1890 log cabin, unlatches the door, and points a hand-held spotlight toward his creations. Here, on the sprawling farm where he grew up, the 77-year-old woodworker is keeping his hometowns history alive.
Kells village of miniature building reproductions has become a sort of museum where local school children come to learn about the past. Perched on a rough-hewn table is the Dunlap (Tenn.) Grocery Co.one side a saloon, the other a dry goods store. Then theres the Center Point School, which Kell attended, with its tiny blackboard, desks, and pot-bellied stove; and the family homestead, re-created to show the outhouse, corn bin, and what is now a 250-year-old white oak, the oldest tree in Sequatchie County.
A lean man with kind blue eyes and hands roughened from years of hard work, Kell is an unassuming soul who prefers not to make a big fuss about his art. He started crafting miniature buildings about 15 years ago after retiring from a 30-year career as a dairy inspector for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
Born into a creative family (both his mother and sister were accomplished painters), Kell has been whittling since childhood. I just picked it up, he says. I never took a lesson in my life. I lay awake at night if Im building something, and in about three days It will just come to me.
He designs his replicas by studying old photographs and uses a scale of 1 inch to 3 feet. If you send me a picture showing four sides of a building, I can build it, he says. Buying supplies from a hobby shop is out of the question. Kell harvests the woodpoplar, linden, basswood, and buckeyefrom the 225 acres he owns with his wife, Nadean.
Kells first reproduction was of Chapel Hill Methodist Church. (After 137 years, the real thing still stands on a nearby knoll in a pastoral setting of cypress fences, tiny cemeteries, and cattle farms.) This is undoubtedly one of Kells most detailed miniatures, right down to the rust-red pews, piano, and pulpit.
But his personal favorite is a model of the Sequatchie County Bank, a 1909 landmark in Dunlap. It took three weeks to shape the replica from one large block of poplar, painstakingly notch the wood with a saw, and spray-paint the strips to look like red brick. That was tedious work, Kell admits.
Winter, when the vegetable gardens and berry patches dont need attention, is peak carving season. With a fire roaring in the wood-burning stove and the companionship of Rusty, an Australian shepherd, and two terriers, Angel and Pedro, Kell is apt to spend the whole day in his woodworking shop. I have a lot of company, visitors who drop by, he says with a grin. We shoot the bull and I sit here and work. I enjoy it.
With lumber and stones from his land and red oak shingles he made himself, the resourceful craftsman also has constructed a full-size blacksmith shop, buggy shed, and antique tool museum filled with farm implements ranging from oxen shoes to old-fashioned foot warmers to turn-of-the-century butter churns. Altogether, the buildings cost a whopping $71.82 for nails, hinges, bolts, and cement.
Kells miniatures have been shipped as far as South Dakota, England, and Germany. And his replica of the now-demolished train depot is on display at the Coke Ovens Museum, which primarily houses mining artifacts, in Dunlap. When it comes to the early tools and the primitive structures from the pioneer days, no one in the valley can rival him in his knowledge, says Carson Camp, president of the Sequatchie Valley Historical Association. Hes an asset to the community.
Although he occasionally sells one of his replicas, Kell charges just enough to recoup his expenses and refuses to accept money for the wooden trains and other toys he donates to church fund-raisers, civic organizations, and needy children.
I never run out of things to do, he says. I intend to keep on building as long as Im able.