95-year-old’s project on display
By Scott Bellile
A recent donation to the Hortonville Historical Society is like no other.
As LaVern Ross, 95, of Two Rivers, moved into an assisted living facility this spring, he gave the historical society a hand-built miniature village inspired by 1930s Hortonville. It features structures and businesses that adorned Hortonville’s Depression Era landscape.
His creations include the opera house, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the old train depot, a cheese factory, a meat market, a feed mill, a bank, his grandparents’ farmhouse and more. A number of them are now on display at the opera house.
Each building has a removable roof so viewers can peek at details like the furniture inside the farmhouse, the pews in the church and the stage and bar in the opera house.
Ross has lived in Manitowoc and Two Rivers since the 1950s, so he brought to life Hortonville’s architecture using primarily his childhood memories from summers he spent there.
He returned to town twice about 15 years ago with his daughter Wendy Cronkite Ross of Burlington to jog his memory on the architecture. She snapped photos for him to circle back to, but ultimately the project was for entertainment, not accuracy.
“I realize that LaVern’s train set and village are not an exact replica of the geography of Hortonville,” said Julie Arendt Vanden Heuvel, historian for Hortonville Historical Society. “I am still in awe that he was able to recreate buildings he hadn’t seen in 50-plus years.”
How it all began
Ross served as an airplane mechanic while stationed in the Pacific Islands and Japan during World War II. He built his own house in 1953 and worked repairman-type jobs, retiring in the 1980s.
Ross would spend his retirement days perusing garage sales with his wife Vernetta Ross in search of secondhand tools. At one sale around the mid-1990s, he found a free battery-powered toy train in a box. He picked it up for his grandchildren.
He took it home and popped in some batteries. Watching it chug, he declared, “Grandpa’s getting this.”
Around this time, Vernetta Ross was diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatments. LaVern Ross needed a peaceful hobby he could do in the basement while she slept off the exhaustion from chemotherapy.
The toy locomotive transported him back to what he calls “the good old days” of watching trains pass through Hortonville where he spent summers growing up. He put his hands to work, constructing the town on a pingpong table for his trains to circle.
“That’s how he quieted himself and found an outlet for his creativity because he’s quite an inventor sort of guy,” Cronkite Ross said.
Ross lived in Shiocton with parents Mitchell and Esther Ross until he was about 7 years old in 1928, then moved to Two Rivers.
For nine summers throughout the 1930s after school let out, his maternal grandfather Henry Gallow came to Two Rivers to pick him up. Ross lived and worked on Gallow’s farm located southwest of Hortonville on what’s now Midway Road.
“I liked to tinker and fix things when I was on the farm,” Ross said. “My grandpa didn’t have much entertainment.”
Ross accumulated memories of Hortonville from his stays. Among them:
• Hanging out by the Hortonville train depot located across the street from his other grandfather’s house. One time an engineer gave Ross and his sister candy. Whenever they heard the whistle, they’d run for a treat.
• Parking the horse and wagon outside what’s now the opera house to watch his first silent movie, “The Uninvited Guest.” It scared him. “It sunk into my brain and I tossed and turned all night,” Ross said. “I didn’t go to no movies for a long time.”
• Going to the Duck Inn, a tavern with a little zoo between Hortonville and New London. It had some monkeys as well as a bear he used to feed.
• Returning every summer to see more and more of the dirt roads getting paved.
• Attending the Outagamie County Fair in Hortonville before it was moved to Seymour. The fair was the only time he could eat ice cream because freezing food was hard back then.
Project changes hands
Vernetta Ross died in 2000, but her husband continued building up until the last few years.
“I spent a lot of time on it but I had free time after I retired, and I enjoyed doing what I was doing,” Ross said. “You should have seen how many people came to see it.”
Cronkite Ross said her father only stopped building because he ran out of space in the basement, not out of steam.
Both she and her father admitted it’s hard seeing the collection go, along with his house.
She held on to the farmhouse replica and gave the rest of the structures to the historical society. His toy trains went to a Burlington man who will give them to children at train shows. Cronkite Ross said she’s happy everything’s in good hands.
Cronkite Ross hopes to bring him back to Hortonville where he can see his project on display and reminisce some more.
“He loves thinking about the good old days,” she said. “That’s where he wants to spend his life. That’s where he wishes he was now, probably like a lot of people.”