miniature and toy maker
In a one-car garage near Bryant High School, Merle Dodd is building a railroad depot. It’s an exact, one-inch-to-one-foot replica of the one that stood in town, right down to the shingles on the roof and the clapboard siding. When it came time to paint it, Dodd took a book of paint samples to a 100-year-old woman who remembered the depot from her childhood, and she picked the color it had been: a brown the color of a cup of coffee with lots of cream in it.
Though he makes what he calls his “fantasy” buildings and toys — whirligigs, doll houses, wooden carousels with carved gears to make the horses float up and down — Dodd is, first and foremost, interested in bringing the past back to life in his miniatures.
“To tell you the truth, the history has always been my favorite,” Dodd said. “I get so involved in it because the world’s going by so doggone fast that one of these days somebody’s going to start stacking some of this up” — knocking down historic buildings and such.
Dodd’s interest in building miniatures started in the 1950s, when he worked for a Midwestern construction company. Back then, he befriended a Mr. Lane, an alcoholic gypsy whose first name he never learned. To pass the time and keep himself off the bottle, Mr. Lane would carve and then assemble things from scrap wood and bits of trash. “That was my start,” Dodd said. “He’d build these beautiful things. He was so talented.”
Eventually, Dodd worked his way up to foreman in the construction company, and was sent back to his native Arkansas to ride herd over projects like the Main Street Bridge and two of the lock and dams along the Arkansas River. He kept up his woodwork, and since retiring 12 years ago, the 79-year-old Dodd has spent most of his time puttering around his small shop, using mostly homemade tools to build toys and miniature buildings. Every year for Christmas, he builds wooden toys for Arkansas Children’s Hospital: detailed replicas of the dozers and earth movers he saw on job sites, biplanes, rubber band guns, banks built to break into pieces when you put a coin in them.
The miniature buildings and bridges are his passion, however. He has built several over the years, most of them promised to one local public space or another. Though folk art collectors and the curious have tried to buy some of his buildings, Dodd won’t sell anything, though he gladly gives it away. “Selling might make it seem too much like work,” he laughs.
His recent constructions include a replica of the Bryant post office, a steamer-trunk-sized dollhouse, a scale model of an iron bridge that once spanned a creek in the area (complete down to the rivets on the girders — the cut-off heads of his wife’s pins), and a replica of North Little Rock’s Old Mill. Recently, Dodd lent the Old Mill replica to the Friends of the Old Mill. For that project, currently on display at the Burns Park Visitors Center, Dodd went so far as to count the number of shingles in the roof of the real Old Mill, and built the interior framing exactly as it is in the original, even though most of it will never be seen by viewers. The work helped him through the illness and eventual death of his wife of 47 years, and his own diagnosis with prostate cancer.
“The Old Mill, when I started it, I had no idea how long it would take me to do that,” he said. “I never even thought how long. I was diagnosed with cancer around then, and was really down mentally and physically. The mental I got over. The Old Mill took care of it. Haven’t worried about it since.”
Though his cancer has progressed to the point that he can’t work for very long most days, Dodd says that his art has kept his spirits up. Several months back, his doctor told him his cancer had spread, and recommended chemotherapy. Dodd refused the treatment when he learned it might take away from his time in the workshop.
“I thought, I might live longer if I do this, but if I ain’t able to be out here making something or doing something I’m not living at all. So, I refused it. I’m going to suffer whatever comes. I’d rather be here out here one more day than live a year in the bed.”