Written by Danielle Taylor
In 1918, the United States was in the throes of World War I, and American men were being drafted by the millions to fight in Europe. In Brookville, the young Charles Bowdish reported for duty on February 26, two days before his twenty-first birthday. Not much is known about his military service, but at some point, he injured a heart muscle and was sent back home. Once there, his mother suggested he take up a low-impact hobby that wouldn’t exacerbate his condition, and it was thanks to this suggestion that Bowdish began his first model train set. The Jefferson County History Center in Brookville invites you to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Bowdish’s first display this Saturday at the Bowdish Birthday Bash.
Bowdish’s interest in miniatures quickly developed, and he began to create structures that resembled homes, businesses, and other points of interest in his hometown. Word of his collection spread, and soon, he had friends and neighbors coming by to see what he had constructed. When his brother got married in 1919, Bowdish created a scene resembling Brookville’s Main Street to entertain wedding guests, and word got out to the rest of the town. Soon, 600 people had come to see Bowdish’s display.
His hobby turned into an annual Christmas tradition, and each year, Bowdish worked to outdo his creation from the year before. By 1939, more than 100,000 people had signed his visitors’ log as they came to see his display, which spanned across more than two full rooms by this point. By 1941, his “Glory of Autumn” display covered 420 square feet and featured a waterfall, two operational model trains, 1,200 trees, a covered bridge, a working gristmill, and synchronized lights and music. By 1955, more than a third of a million people had visited his home at 8 South White Street in Brookville to view his train set.
In 1954, the staff of Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium reached out to Bowdish, asking him to build a display for their facility. He did so, and continued to work with Buhl until his death in 1988. His Buhl display moved to the Carnegie Science Center in time for the 1992 Christmas season, and it now covers more than 2,300 square feet and is open to visitors throughout the year.
One of the Carnegie curators worked with community leaders in Brookville to bring portions of the Pittsburgh display back to Brookville, and by Christmas 1998, a Bowdish train set was once again on display in Bowdish’s hometown. Today, it has a permanent home on the second floor of the Jefferson County History Center, and volunteers work constantly to redevelop its endless points of intrigue.
On Saturday, you can visit the Bowdish display at the Bowdish Birthday Bash, a special event commemorating 100 years since he first began creating his railroad scenes. Stop in between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to see the running display, and while you’re there, check out the new “Stones N’ Bones” and “Gone But Not Forgotten” exhibits. Admission is by donation.
Learn more and find other interesting places to visit in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.