Heart of the

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The Heartlands Museum houses the wonderful collection of railroad locomotives, cars, and equipment that were hand carved by John R. Downes (1912-2007). Mr. Downes worked for 19 years for the ATSF Railway in various capacities before purchasing some land and getting into the dairy business; first near Topeka, KS; then near Meriden, KS; and finally near Council Grove, KS. His business eventually transitioned to that of farming and ranching which he worked into his late 80’s.

During the winter months there wasn’t much to do as a farmer and rancher so he taught himself to paint in oils doing landscapes and portraits. He also taught himself to play the organ while singing in the church choir and he helped out with repairs around the church. Because of his love of the railroad, he began to make models of railroad locomotives and cars in the basement on his farm in his spare time. Using scrap wood of various types and cigar box tops (while also enjoying the contents of the cigar boxes), he created the various hand made models. Also of use in his creations were ink liners from ball point pens for the pipes and metal clothes pins cut and pressed into the wood to simulate the many rivets on the boilers.

Mr. Downes’ tools of choice were a handheld Dremel tool, small drills, a band saw, a table saw, a planer, and a very old machinist’s lathe. He always said that his models were not “to scale”, but were “proportioned” as he used the lathe to make the wheels and then created the remainder of the model to correspond with the size of the wheels. The lathe was also used to turn the wood in creating the boilers of the locomotives.

Each model took several months to create and some of them, like the six foot long Big Boy, took much longer. He made the models for his own enjoyment as well as for gifts for his four children and for his customers.

Click HERE to see photos of Mr. Downes’ collection.

Downes Collection

John R. Downes (1912-2007)

In addition to the model collection on display in the Webb Family Museum at the Heartlands Museum Complex, Mr. Downes created a four foot by four foot model of Big Brutus which is now on display at the Big Brutus Museum in West Mineral, KS. The Big Brutus model swivels, the boom works, and the tracks work.

Mr. Downes created his models using primarily photos of the objects along with some dimensions obtained from various sources.

The Downes family had many years of service to the ATSF Railway. Mr Downes’ father, Roy, started work delivering messages at the Topeka General Offices at a very young age and retired 48 years later as Assistant to the System General Manager. Two of Mr. Downes’ sons also were employed by the ATSF Railway for a few years.

The Downes family wishes to thank the Heart of the Heartlands Railroad Club for displaying these models in a proper setting and the Heartlands Railroad Club thanks the Downes family for allowing us to do so.