Changing landscape

Abbey Stirgwolt

Historical Society trustee’s model shows the city of Kent as it used to be with old streets, railroads

A model of Kent’s early railroad system is on display at the Kent Historical Society. CAITLIN PRARAT | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Jason Hall

In John Wunderle’s historic microcosm of the city of Kent, a strikingly blue river winds gently through a shallow ravine, falling silently over a dam on the right side: a crescent of gray and black stones rising abruptly from the still pool below.

On the left side, a lock awaits vessels to aid in their passage through the canal. A shale cliff forms the bank of the river’s left side – the side where the railroad will run.

Paintbrush in hand, Wunderle plays god over it all.

The paper-and-glue landscape is his handiwork, and it’s still not complete. The river trails off and ends abruptly in a blotchy contrast of white and blue. Wunderle is still painting that part.

There are no shiny cars, no tattoo parlors, no hookah bars. Nor will there ever be in Wunderle’s Kent. The streets are brick or dirt. The town is not dwarfed by a sprawling university.

See for yourself:

The completed model railroad can be seen at the Kent Historical Society Museum on 234 S. Water St. The museum is open Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Bits of Styrofoam, waiting to be formed into mountains, bricks and buildings, litter the untouched remainder of the waist-high display that takes up more than half of the small room it occupies. Half-empty paint bottles are precariously lined up along the plaster riverbank, impositions upon the paper landscape. This is where the train station will stand someday soon.

Wunderle squirts several blobs of dark blue paint into the dry paper-towel riverbed, then a dabble of green. He mixes it with his paintbrush, lost in thought, and begins to bring the river to life.

Whispers of the past

Wunderle’s eight-foot-long world is a model of the Kent in days gone by. A lot has changed since then, he says.

The model itself is simple: just a town, a river and a railroad.

Wunderle remembers how things changed when the university came to town. Today, things are much different.

“The city is now subservient to the college,” he says, pausing with the paintbrush midair. “When the university came, the town turned into a town that wasn’t more than a bunch of bars.”

But Wunderle, a trustee for the Kent Historical Society, remembers when Kent was “a Saturday night town.”

There was a grocery store, a men’s clothing store, a lot of locally owned shops. People did everything downtown.

Today, he said, national chains have taken away local business. There’s not really much to do in town anymore if you’re not a college student – except go to bars.

But Wunderle’s not the bar type. Instead, he opts to spend time in Kent’s new Historical Society building on South Water Street, crafting pieces of yesterday’s Kent to share with posterity.

Time and change

Wunderle isn’t really painting now. He just runs the brush with the drying paint across the same spot in the riverbed. He’s too busy thinking, reflecting on change.

While some change is good, he admits, there’s not much he can do about it. After all, he’s been here for almost all of his 86 years. If there’s anything he’s learned, it’s that time moves on.

Wunderle draws from his cumulative experience of the changing landscape of Kent, physical and otherwise. He wouldn’t want to raise kids today, he says, because of what society has become. But he is resolved.

“You can’t stop change, ’cause change is a good thing,” he says, not exactly seeming as if believes it.

Contact features editor Abbey Stirgwolt at [email protected].