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Flowery Branch resident’s 'ancient hobby' pays homage to city’s historic charm
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A jack of several trades and "master of two or three," Flowery Branch resident Dave Kirkley spends his holiday season fleshing out a model train set that pays homage to the city he calls home. The 4-by-6-foot replica features familiar establishments like Antebellum, Sample Pleasures Gift Outlet, Whole Being Cafe, Liberty Candy Company, the train depot and the iconic caboose situated at the end of Main Street. Photo courtesy Vicki Kirkley

Dave Kirkley may not be a native of Flowery Branch, but in the 17 years that he and his family have called the city home, it’s grown increasingly nearer and dearer to his heart.

A jack of several trades and “master of two or three,” the Maryland transplant has spent the last few years fleshing out a model train set that pays homage to Flowery Branch’s historic charm.

Modeled after the Christmas train gardens of his childhood — portable layouts that, equipped to accommodate multiple trains at one time, come out with the lights and mistletoe each holiday season — the 4-by-6-foot display features downtown staples like Antebellum, Sample Pleasures Gift Outlet, Whole Being Cafe, Liberty Candy Company, the train depot and the iconic caboose situated at the end of Main Street. 

Unlike a packaged model train set that comes with a locomotive, a caboose and several cars as well as a track and transformer, the train garden boasts a more complex layout that’s further embellished year after year. This year, Kirkley added winter trees and street lamps resembling those lining the city’s Main Street. In 2022, he plans to expand the street, creating room for Peyton’s Pie Company and Beer Me.

“That’s part of a Christmas train garden — there is no finish line,” Kirkley said. “When you get to the point where you feel like you’re finished, you add something like an elevated trolley or more trains or new buildings. The whole idea is to bring it out, change it, enjoy it for about eight weeks and then put it away for the rest of the year.”

According to Kirkley, who also specializes in wooden ships and remote-controlled boat models, the Flowery Branch theme emerged more or less on its own.

“While I was setting up the train part of it, I started to notice there were buildings available that looked very similar to the buildings that we have in Flowery Branch, so I thought it would be a nice touch to actually model Flowery Branch,” he said. “That’s kind of where the inspiration came from. We love Flowery Branch. We came up here in a kind of escape-from-Gwinnett situation. I’ve just always thought Flowery Branch is nice and quaint and we’ve enjoyed living up here and watching it grow.”

With growth has come distinct changes, Kirkley noted, as some of the buildings adorning his replica — such as the old police station with its large round light fixtures flanking either side of the front door — are no longer present in Flowery Branch, having been torn down and replaced. 

These lengths to preserve the town’s history were lauded by members of the Flowery Branch Community group on Facebook, where Kirkley’s wife posted about the train set, garnering more than 400 reactions and 118 comments.

Beyond the buildings, Kirkley’s track can accommodate a total of five trains, with two running in tandem. Much of his rail gear, he said, is at least 40 years old, acquired by way of Facebook Marketplace, Ebay, Trainmaster Model Trains formerly located in Buford and his wife’s grandfather.

“A lot of this is from the ‘70s and probably some from the ‘60s, and they all run — they don’t run without a lot of work, but they do run,” Kirkley said. “There’s a lot of tweaking and pushing things in the right direction to keep these things running.”

Kirkley’s interest in model trains traces back to his childhood, nodding to traditions passed down by his father and grandfather.

“This goes all the way back to my dad’s dad — he did Lionel trains when my dad was a kid,” Kirkley said. “My earliest memory was getting a train set out of the box and setting it up on the basement floor till my dad got a platform that consisted of a circle. We just always had one, for as long as I can remember. The tradition for most of my life now is, shortly after Thanksgiving, you bring out the trains.”

According to Kirkley, the Flowery Branch model was the first train garden he’d tinkered with since leaving Maryland in the late 1980s. His hope in reviving the self-described “ancient hobby” was sharing it with his two daughters and building their own subset of family memories.

“There just seems to be a strong association with trains and Christmas wherever you look,” Kirkley said. “I just thought it would be neat to start it up again, because it was part of my Christmas thing when I was a little kid — trains were always just part of it.”

As for the train garden itself, Kirkley’s work isn’t done.

“I’ll keep adding to it,” he said. “I may simplify the actual train portion of it, because as I get into more high-end modeling outside of trains, I really like the landscape part of it and the buildings. I might simplify the trains, but I do want to continue with the Flowery Branch theme, and I feel like I’ve got some room to grow here.”