By Nancy R. Elliott
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Cowboys, gunslingers, tipis and buffalo — they’re the signs of Wild West adventure but they’re all in miniature.
The sagas play out in a display containing over 100 handpainted figures just over two inches high — all the work of Chesterfield resident Mike Arnold. The exhibit which brings to life the uniquely American history of “Winning the West” is currently on display in the Indiana Room at the Anderson Public Library.
“We usually have a lot of children who come ... They’re very popular,” said Indiana Room librarian Beth Oljace. “They’re very intricate. The detail is amazing. They tell a story.”
Visitors peering into the case will discover detailed events taking place in the miniature world Arnold created. Over here is the gunfight in the O.K. Corral, and, over there — that’s Billy the Kid in the newspaper offices. Wild Bill Hickok can be spotted in the saloon. There are buffalo roaming, Lakota Indians taking part in a sun ceremony, Lewis and Clark on expedition and plenty more.
“That kind of stuff fascinates me,” said Arnold. “My goal is for a couple of kids to get interested in the subject — in history.”
It started in 1951 when Arnold was just six years old. That’s when his parents gave him his first set of toy figures, a Fort Apache set from Sears. “My generation lived on Sears Roebuck playsets by Marx. ... They’re priceless now.”
He locked onto history with a focus that never let go. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in the subject at Ball State University. Arnold worked as an educator until the mid ‘70s, and has since held various positions.
Arnold’s interest in the historical toy soldiers rekindled after his son, Damon, was born 18 years ago.
“When he was two, I saw an ad for toy soldiers. I hadn’t collected them since I was 12 or 13. I had so much fun. I said I was going to get him an old time toy — a traditional toy. I got him his first little set,” said Arnold. It was a set of reissued medieval knights.
Hours of detail work
Damon and his dad shared the hobby, and started painting the little 54- and 60-millimeter figures together.
“I do remember when I was about four, I remember painting a horse purple, gold, all kinds of colors,” said Damon. He rcalled his father’s chuckle, telling his son, “That’s good.”
Damon is a senior at Anderson High School. Although he doesn’t paint the figures with his dad anymore, he helps transport displays to the library.
“You can learn a lot from them,” said Damon.
Arnold researches the historical material in preparing a display for the library. Then he lays the scene out on graph paper.
“It takes hours and hours and hours to paint everything,” said Arnold. He’s got about 40 to 50 hours in the current display of more than 100 pieces, each one painted with painstaking detail. Most of the pieces are plastic, but some are metal.
Arnold started sharing his hobby with the citizens of Anderson by setting up displays in the Anderson Public Library about four years ago. In July, Arnold will set up a display of Gettysburg. For Veterans Day in November, Arnold is planning a display of the history of United States uniforms, from King Philip’s War to Iraq.
As for Arnold’s partner and Damon’s mom, Beth, Arnold said, “She loves it. It gives me something to do.”
Arnold laughingly describes himself and others engrossed in the toy soldiers hobby, “We’re little boys that didn’t grow up.”