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Story last updated at 11:01 PM on Dec. 19, 2004
Jeff Blake/Staff
 Don and Jane Nute have created a train garden, including this miniature town, in their back yard.

Model citizens: Couple's hobby brings Middle Earth to surface


By Wayne Ford
wayne.ford@onlineathens.com


Don Nute walked out his backdoor on a recent December morning and stepped casually into Middle Earth.

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"That's a hobbit hole," he said, then as if to explain, "Like in the movie."

It is here in this fantasy land, Nute and his wife, Jane, run their miniature electric trains. They are among a fast-growing sector of train hobbyist known as garden railroaders. These are railroads built in the outdoors on brass tracks able to withstand the toil of Mother Nature.

And developing a scene to wrap around the tracks is a major part of this model train hobby.

Nute decided on the Middle Earth theme, derived from J.R.R. Tolkein's novel "The Hobbit," because he enjoys the books and the movies. On one side of the layout is the village of Hobbiton with a general store, a bakery, an inn, train station and water tower. A focal point of the layout is a lake and a mountain, places that would make any elf or dwarf happy. The Nutes call their backyard island "Old Lake Town and Shire."

The Nutes even name their locomotives after characters in the book, such as Gollum and Sam Gamgee, the latter a name he gave to a locomotive that was a gift to him when he retired from the philosophy department at the University of Georgia.

Jeff Blake/Staff
 A train motors past a hobbit's home in Don and Jane Nute's train garden.
They even have expert help with a few of their characters.

"Our son-in-law designs and makes monsters out in L.A., so he made some of our hobbits," Jane Nute said.

The Nutes have several locomotives and a control system with which they can navigate the trains by remote control from the shade of their backporch if they so choose. The trains are also about twice the size of the typical Lionel electric train that one would find in a home system.

"We have grandpas that bring their kids over to see this, and I don't know who enjoys it the most, the grandpas or the kids," she said.

Train gardening is a growing hobby and the Nutes are members of the Georgia Garden Railway Society. They meet regularly, usually at one of the member's homes. The Nutes hosted the meeting in October.

The Nutes actually became interested in the railroads due to their interest in gardening. And the hobby blossomed into cross-country traveling. They now visit locations across the United States and Canada to see steam locomotives, which is their primary interest in trains.

"We got into gardening about 15 years ago," Nute said, explaining they began landscaping a yard that contained virtually nothing but pine trees. But a few years ago, they went to a nursery in Atlanta and saw a garden train.

"And we said we've got to have one of those in our garden," Nute said. Later they visited the EPCOT Center in Florida and saw a more extravagant layout.

"Disney knows how to do it," Jane Nute added.

Jeff Blake/Staff
 Don and Jane Nute sit near their garden train.
And in building their layout into a slice of Middle Earth, they began looking for the right plants.

"We have to pick things that stay small or will trim to a good size," she said. "This is a dwarf pomegranate. We found it once and haven't been able to find it since. I need to propagate it so I can give more to the other train people."

Jane Nute was complimentary about the way her husband is able to take miniature structures, like a saw mill, and paint them so that they look old and weathered. He also puts together kits of miniature objects that fit with the layout's theme.

Don Nute said there are at least two other people in the Athens area who are developing railroad gardens.

"You can get a locomotive with two or three cars, some track and a power pack for around $200 to $300. Now that track can be used only inside. It'll take $150 to $200 to get a brass track you can put outside and leave outside," he said.

The layout for the train is equally important to the hobbyist.

Jeff Blake/Staff
 A train emerges from a tunnel in Don and Jane Nute's garden train.
"You can have a garden railroad or a railroad in your garden," Jane Nute said, explaining they plan to extend the track out from their Middle Earth layout to points further into the backyard. "As we go around the back we won't worry about keeping things to scale so it will be a train in our garden. But here, it's a garden train. Everything is to scale."

The Nutes now like to travel to destinations where they can view steam engine locomotives.

"Steam technology, I find fascinating," Don Nute said. "I've learned an awful lot. There are places you can go and they will teach you how to drive a steam engine. I think I'd like to do that someday."

"When you ride them, they're noisy, gritty, sooty," his wife added. "When we ride in the cab, we come off black, but it's so exciting. That sound is exciting."

The Nutes are both originally from Maysville, Ky., a city located on the Ohio River and founded in the 1780s, and the home of movie star Nick Clooney and the singer Rosemary Clooney. Jane Nute is a retired school teacher and her husband worked in the philosophy department at UGA where he is a founding director of the Artificial Intelligence Program. He now teaches part-time. They have a daughter, Achsa Nute, a graduate of Cedar Shoals High School, who with her husband, Chris Burdett, now lives in California.

Nute now has more time to spend on his hobby. He integrated a digital command control into his system.

"You can have two engines on the track going different speeds or whatever direction you want. Whereas in the old system, they had to go in the same direction at the same speed," he said.

His wife enjoys the train and the new hobby it spawned.

"A whole new thing for us is to travel and ride trains," she said.

Don Nute's Web site is www.lake townandshire.net He has more photos on his layout and hundreds of photographs taken of trains across the country and in Canada.


Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday, December 20, 2004

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