A 91-year-old Albertan uses recycled materials to create small and large dioramas to tell the story of a time when many of us weren’t there.
ATHABASCA, Alta — This was the journey of a lifetime, both through memories and a vast diorama that took years to create.
Louis Baron, 91, has been working on his passion project for 12 years – sculpting here, sewing there, reshaping this, covering that – and now he has a 40ft sea box filled with a diorama starting with when the land was covered trees, a farm, a city, and many objects are straight out of his own memories.
Baron was born in Montreal and came west with his parents and when the time came for him to have his own home, he and his wife Alice chose a patch of land north of the Athabasca River covered in bush .
“(I used) the horses for everything, pulling the stumps, it was easy,” he said. “And then a brittle plow to open up the earth.”
A sleigh ride into town meant leaving at 7:30 a.m. arriving in Athabasca at 11 a.m., doing some shopping and returning before supper.
“I said the cheapest and best butter you could get was (from) children,” he said. “They are holding a jar (of cream) in the wagon and the road was rough, we were coming into town and it was almost over. We left it in the wagon and by the time we got home it was butter.
And until just a few years ago, Baron still had his team of horses active and working on the farm. Before that, he took them on horseback to places like Barrhead and Westlock.
“I trained the horses for the neighbor because their father had a sawmill, and he couldn’t even get the horse to pull the log,” he says. “One day for me, go out there, a little trick I learned growing up with horses.”
Voila, the horse pulled the logs, something represented in his diorama and in the photographs of his leather goods where he makes all the little harnesses for his models.
“I have two sewing machines, but they are over 100 years old,” he says. “You have to run one, go back and forth, but the tools like to put the stains in everything I did them myself because each one has to be separate (costs a lot).”
The old leather sewing machine also perpetuates a family tradition. It’s hand operated and there’s no safety guard – safety wasn’t as much of a concern 100 years ago – but he used it to make all sorts of harness gear for himself- same and for others and still uses it to make all sorts of things like leather picture frames, keychains, besides making his miniatures realistic.
“My mother’s father was a harness maker in the 1900s and I remember in 1947/1948 (I had a) saddle horse where I worked and started making my own bridles and collars chest,” he said.
Baron has shown parts of his diorama over the years and it’s as important to the people viewing it as it is to him to make sure the details are correct.
“A lady at Colinton, she said the blacksmith had an apron too, but I said look over there, I made a little apron and a little hammer to drive the nails in.” he said. “I even made him a cap.”
From people in the meat shops to the butcher’s shop window – made from modeling clay and painted to look like steaks and roasts, every detail matters.
He doesn’t take all the pieces if asked to put them somewhere, some are just too big to travel, but he’s more than happy to take a tour and talk about his life.
“(When) I was growing up and learning and when I left home of course I started working for the farmers for so many months,” Baron said. “Then I leave this place and go to the logging camp and learn; it all pushed on you. And then I found myself in a blacksmith shop and it was something new again.
All of these memories were stored in his still vivid brain and served as the basis for his diorama.
“Some of the buildings or carve horses out of pieces of wood and shape them and make the little collar and harness them and you could spend a month on just one building because it has to be exactly like it was in the 1920s and 30s “said Baron.
And to create his landscape through the ages, he uses discarded and recycled materials, odds and ends that no one wants, and it can lead to some hilarious interactions.
“I was in the Riddle store and I had a bag of women’s shoes and a woman asked me why I needed so many shoes,” he laughed. “I told him I wore them when I was plowing with the horses. The heels were good for digging and I had broken a few heels so needed more.
And it’s the creativity that’s as fascinating as the complete diorama where he fashioned a sink out of half a tomato juice box or used pipe cleaners cut to size, dipped in glue and then in rice and painted yellow to make cereal bundles.
“This little harrow, I had to determine the length of it from recycling, drill all the holes, put the pins in it, then make the unique little tree to fit the horse and harness and lay out the garden,” he said.