Miniature stagecoaches: Masterpieces on display at Western Heritage Center

2014-06-10T00:00:00Z 2014-06-10T10:59:05Z Miniature stagecoaches: Masterpieces on display at Western Heritage CenterBy CHRIS CIOFFI ccioffi@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In the 1930s, when William Nutting, 82, was born in Stillwater County, the area was a much different place.

“I was a farmer boy,” Nutting said. “I used to herd sheep.”

He never finished eighth grade, he said. “I had to work, because Dad didn’t have no farm hands.”

He would ride his father’s horse-drawn stagecoaches into the town of Columbus and sell milk from their 20 cows, or he would sell wheat, barley and sometimes oats grown in their fields.

He had never laid eyes on an automobile until he was 16.

He eventually bought a Ford Model-T truck from a farmer he was working for and the era of motorized travel began for Nutting, but he never forgot those stagecoaches.

In the late 1990s, he began to replicate those early days on the farm, building miniaturized scenes of fully functional stagecoaches, and gave them to his children as gifts. Saturday several of the pieces were installed at the Western Heritage Center, 2822 Montana Ave.

“I rode in them and I wanted something just like them, but in miniature,” he said.

A contractor by trade, the craftsman made tables, toys, jewelry boxes and other things out of wood, but when someone suggested he try a miniature, he took a crack at it.

“I tried pretty hard, and I finally got pretty good at it,” he said. The first model took him a year, but the next four didn’t take as long. “Once I got it, it was simple.”

The miniatures became an obsession. He made custom handtools and crafted each part of the stagecoaches to work identically to their full-sized cousins, he said.

He worked on various job sites during the day and would come home to work on the models, sometimes right through dinner, said Mike Nutting, his son. “There were times when Mom would take him in a sandwich or his supper and say, ‘Eat!’ ”

The elder Nutting, and his wife, Rosemary, who died in 2010, were a team when it came to the miniatures.

“I liked to work with wood,” he said. “She sewed all the leather.”

He built the models from old cedar fence posts, he said. “I used to go out in the field and I’d find a nice one, and take it home and cut it up.”

Rosemary helped turn his models into masterpieces with shellac and all the trimmings.

“When dad was finished, she’d finish them up and fine tune them,” Mike Nutting said.

The three models at the Western Heritage Center are in glass cases, which he also built. They’re nearly perfect.

These days, William, known as Uncle Bill by his family, can’t work on them very much anymore anyway. His strength has been sapped by a bad heart, and two strokes left him with limited use of his right arm.

While he can’t work on them, he wants other Montanans to know what life used to be like, and he wants the models to stay in Montana.

“I love to have my work shown,” he said with a grin, “I think it’s pretty good.”

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