BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — The three girls had looks of wonder on their faces as they followed the trains around the miniature villages.
Two of them, sisters from Poulsbo, crouched down to check out the lavishly decorated rooms inside the houses. The older sister said she had a dollhouse at home but it didn’t compare to these houses. But their favorite part was the train. The tranquility of the holiday scene was momentarily broken by excited laughter.
This is why Dwight Shappell recreated the French villages in miniature form — “for no reason other than the sheer joy of doing it, and watching the joy on people’s faces.”
Over the years, the villages have brought joy to thousands of people. The model villages are on exhibit until Dec. 31 in Bloedel Reserve’s visitor center — a grand, cream-colored manor house decked out with festive botanical arrangements made from the reserve’s collections. Model trains, operated by Dave Durfee of the Bremerton Northern Model Railroad Club, take visitors’ imaginations through the villages.
The Holiday Village is in its third year; it attracted 5,000 visitors last year.
Shappell, a longtime horticulturist, used recycled woods and fabrics in creating his intricate, handcrafted villages.
For Shappell, horticulture and building model houses are linked, dating back to time he spent at his grandmother’s Iowa cabin. He was born and raised just outside the river town of Dubuque, Iowa, and spent much of his childhood tending the garden at his grandmother’s log cabin. Later, he tended a garden on a farming estate where his father worked. It was on this estate he first saw someone building model houses as a hobby.
Shappell studied horticulture at Iowa State University — through a loan offered by the estate owner — but his life soon took a different turn. After graduating in 1953, he was commissioned into the Air Force for two years; he was stationed in Moulin, France, where he met and married his wife, Rolande.
While his time in France inspired the model homes and shops he created over the next 40 years, he crafted them out of materials handy to him in the many places the family lived.
After about six years working as a florist, Shappell was recalled into the Air Force. He worked as a squadron commander and commissary and exchange officer for the next 18 years. He was stationed in Wichita, Kan., where he built the first village in 1963 as a holiday display for his church’s bazaar.
The homes, shops and a church are built out of wooden produce crates, a typewriter box, recycled plywood and other scrap materials. Shappell taught himself woodworking and said he didn’t use any power tools when assembling his models.
He built the second village while stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. He estimates he spent about 2,500 hours building the second village, which is larger than the first and includes fully furnished rooms with movable furniture, carpeting, framed pictures, and upholstery made by his wife. One chest of drawers has a mirror made from a World War II GI shaving kit.
Some of his materials were given to him by friends; a few pieces of mini furniture were made from an old koa wood sports trophy he found.
“To throw that Hawaiian koa away in a dump is almost sacrilege,” he said.
Shappell retired as a major in 1980 and moved to Bainbridge Island, where he worked again as a florist for Town and Country Nursery and Florist. When the owner moved the location in 1989, Shappell bought the flower business from the nursery and set up Dwight’s Flowers on Winslow Way. In 1994, he built an impressively large castle, named for his late wife, for display in his flower shop.
It was his lifelong goal to own his own flower shop, he said, and it is the “beauty of everything” in flowers that draws him to the business.
He said he retired for the second time in 1996, and has since spent his time as a docent and guide at Bloedel, including hosting a Sunday evening talk. And he’s built a few more model houses.
In 2006, he crafted a larger model of a French shop that was built in 1410 and is still in use today. He said he worked the hardest on its craftsmanship because the shop is one of two of his models that is based on a real place.
Most recently, however, he deviated from his European theme and paid homage to his grandmother by recreating her log cabin. Shappell has a sharp attention to detail — pasted along the slanted ceilings in the model cabin are copies of the real newspapers that were used for insulation, including his aunt’s wedding announcement.
Now, at 81, he said he wouldn’t rule out building more models, but not for sale. He has been asked in the past to build tiny furniture and an entire model home on commission, but his price of $1 per working hour was turned down; a chest alone would have cost $32.
New this year is an antique doll display by Dee DuMont, also of Bainbridge Island. DuMont’s European- and American-made dolls range from the 1870s to 1959, many in their original clothing, and her collection includes a few of her own childhood dolls. She said, as a seamstress, her dolls are “a hobby made in heaven.”
The Holiday Village is on exhibit through Dec. 31 and is included with regular paid admission to Bloedel Reserve (children 12 and younger get in free). The reserve is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., plus special Monday openings on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
More information: www.bloedelreserve.org.