Great Falls in miniature – the art of Bill Steele
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
I have always been fascinated with miniatures – whether it’s doll houses, a depot and train set or whole villages complete with moving cars and trains – I could look at them for hours. A good miniaturist pays attention to detail and brings to life a setting that might otherwise be lost.
Earlier this year, I got a call from Bill Steele, a Great Falls native now living in Pineville, NC and was excited to find out that he had created portions of Great Falls in miniature. It took us a while to get together but finally last Saturday, I got to see some of the examples of what he has created.
When I entered the Masonic Lodge where the annual Mill Hill reunion was taking place, I saw on one of the tables a series of tiny buildings all laid out side by side. I was awe struck.
There was No. 2 Mill sitting beside a Shell service station and in front of the old depot. And then I met the man who created them.
Steele, 81, was always interested in miniatures and models. He said as a child he made model cars and model airplanes and then in the 1980s he got interested in NASCAR and made some models of a few of those. He also over the years did some scenes and dioramas of the old television westerns including one from the series Bonanza.
“About 7 or 8 years ago,” Steele said, “I decided I was going to write a little book, “My Life in Great Falls” and I started doing research on some things for accuracy. I found the old Great Falls Reporters were on microfilm at the Chester County Library and I would go down there one to two times a week looking for things about the history of Great Falls for my book.”
While looking through the reels of microfilm and coming down to Great Falls every couple of months, Steele saw what the buildings looked like in the 1950s when he was growing up and the run-down look they had when he visited. He decided at that point that he really would like to capture that time period of his childhood in miniature. And so, the adventure began.
The very first building he did was the old Belk building or Company Store that the Town is in the process of turning into the Visitor’s Center for all the outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism that is coming to Great Falls. This will be the site of a museum or exhibit space as well as the state park office, an area for visitors to gather and other uses yet to be determined.
Next, he did the bank and drug store which is now Town Hall and his third project was the long strip of commercial buildings with the decorative ceramic frieze across the top.
Steele’s choice to portray Great Falls in miniature with am emphasis on the 1950s was twofold.
“The 1950s was when I grew up in Great Falls. I graduated from high school in 1959,” Steele said, "And I also felt that the 1950s into the 1960s was really the heyday of Great Falls.”
Steele was very familiar with much of the architecture of the area. He was born in one of the 4-room mill houses on Canal Street and then he and his family moved to Circle Street. His father was the overseer of the No. 2 weave room and later when he went into management, they moved to a 7-room house on Pinecrest. Steele ‘s father died when he was just 13 years old. His mother didn’t want to stay in that larger house, so they moved again.
After the first three or four models, Steele kept going and he has done nearly all of the downtown area from the old jail, “Smokey Lonesome” as some people called it, all the way up to No. 2 Mill. Some of the models are of buildings that no longer exist. He has done a few of the buildings in Flopeye, most of those are the ones that have been torn down.
He says there are four buildings between downtown and Flopeye that he hasn’t done yet and he is thinking about getting those done soon. He has built most of the school buildings in Great Falls, three of those either burned or were torn down, and they were located between downtown and Flopeye.
These buildings are all on the HO scale that is 1:87 scale (3.5 mm to 1 foot) which is a scale used in model train buildings. He has done a few models of the mill houses and some of the other buildings around No. 2 Mill.
A few of the buildings he was able to complete the interiors with furniture, people and specific details. The roofs come off so you can peer down into this tiny world. The old high school building has the auditorium with the stage marked as a basketball court. Students played the game there before the gym was built. The old jail has the iron cots that would fold up against the wall complete with an unlucky prisoner laying on the cot.
Steele has an eye for details. He was engineer for Duke Energy for 28 ½ years. Even though he has lived in North Carolina for about 42 years, he still thinks of Great Falls as his hometown.
“Those were good times and hard times,” Steel said of growing up in Great Falls. “It was a really good place to grow up.”
Steele and the Great Falls Home Town Association are talking about him donating the model village to be used in the exhibit area of the new Visitor’s Center.
I think it will be the perfect way for people to see what Great Falls was like in it’s prime – something that we are trying to bring back for everyone to see right before their eyes.