By Jason O'Boyd, Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2012 —
Hilton Butler is an artist, in every sense of the word. But you'd never know it just by looking at his hands.
They aren't extremely big, but they allow him to grip your hand with a firm, but friendly handshake when you first meet him. They're brawny, a little bit rough, wrinkled and weathered by time and the work he did at the ALCOA plant in Badin for just over 30 years.
But, when he puts those hands to work along with his creativity, curiosity and incredible talent, they can do wonderful things.
Butler makes scale models of buildings past and present in Stanly County and surroundings areas of North Caroli-na. He believes he's made around 30 of them since 2000 when he retired from his job at ALCOA.
He's made models of five old churches in the county as well as models for Pfeif-fer University and the New London Area Historical Museum. His work is also on display at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse along with several other museums in the state. One model also resides in Virginia at the old church his mother once attended.
The rest of his work is on display at his house, in another building in the back of his house and at his shop, where all the magic happens.
"I've never done any of this," Butler said while sitting in his shop, where his current creation, a model of an old grist mill, is nearing completion.
"I just decided one day 'I think I can build that.' I've always messed with building stuff, piddling and stuff … my home and this barn. I have a little idea what to do. I run across some scrap paneling and I cut it up and that's what that whole thing is built on."
Do you remember the old J.M. Miller store? An almost exact scale model Butler made is on display at the New London museum. It's complete with two old-time gas pumps, a kerosene pump and even a display box where The Stanly News & Press would be sold.
But it doesn't stop there.
If you peek inside the front door of the model, you can see where Butler has made shelves with little products for sale. There's a counter, a cash register and anything else you'd expect to see.
At his home, he has models that include the old J.L. West Grocery store, the former post office in Badin, an old Esso station and a hot dog stand that used to be in Albemarle. He also has models of the Roanoke River Lighthouse in Edenton and Coffey's General Store, a historic landmark in Edgemont.
"I just enjoy looking at stuff like that," Butler said. "A lot of times we run into stuff like this that they've had and nobody has seen or hasn't seen in years and years and years. I start from that,” Butler said. "I do it for a hobby. I'd rather someone else enjoy it than let it sit over there doing nothing."
When Butler retired around 2000, he was — like anyone else in that situation — looking for something to fill the void in life a daily job gave him. He and his wife, Mary, have taken Our State magazine for years, and he's always been fascinated by the photos and stories of places all over the state.
It was that inspiration and a unique trip to Chimney Rock that really ignited his passion.
"We came around this curve and there was this old house sitting in the woods," Butler said. "I honestly thought the house was abandoned. So I got out and took out my camera and was walking around the house and someone came out and said, 'Can I help you?' That's how it got started,” Butler said.
"I sat down and started talking with that guy and he was more than willing to let me take pictures of it. That's one of the first ones I built, which is down at the house. I started from there and got interested in it."
Butler's attention to detail is amazing. For the grist mill he's currently working on, he has 20 pieces for each of the 17 windows. There's inside walls, glass, mesh wiring for the window panes, inside trim, outside trim and the outside paneling. There's even little chairs he's made from coffee stirrers and sacks of corn stacked on the outside.
If you do the math, it would be easy to assume Butler's 30 pieces of work would probably have taken him around 12 years to complete. And, that's partially true. There's such fine craftsmanship, attention to detail and research that goes into each model.
"It doesn't take that long," Butler said. "When I start on it, it's an everyday thing until I finish it. I can probably do it in 3-4 weeks.
"I get out here, I get occupied with it and it might take all day to build the sides or outside frames. But after I get started, I've done enough that now everything falls into place for me."
Most of the time he spends on each project goes into research. If he sees or reads something that he thinks he can turn into his latest project, he'll write a letter or call the local Chamber of Commerce to get a contact. From there, he might receive pictures of the place he's interested in. In some cases, he and his wife have driven to the location.
"I might call that Chamber of Commerce and ask 'How do I get in touch with the people they did this article about?'" Butler said. "That's how it gets started. 'If you can send me some stuff, I'd love to try to build it. If you love it, you can have it. If you don't that's fine.'
"It tickles them to death, and they come get it. I've had them drive all the way from the Outer Banks and that lady, boy she enjoyed it."
People who have seen his work have marveled at the attention to detail, from the models to the information panel he attaches to each of his works with history on the building. For the grist mills, a working water wheel with water that cascades over it is included along with replicas of shrubs and other grassy items you'd find around a real mill. He also includes a light that comes on inside each model to see all the extras included.
It's truly a labor of love, something he intends to continue doing as long as he's able.
"We had a lot of people who would study those things and study it … they couldn't believe the detail work in it," Butler said. "They'd say 'I don't see how someone with big hands like you can put that little biddy stuff in there.' I use a lot of tweezers. I think they enjoy it.
"My wife says I've got more foresight than anybody she's ever seen. I just enjoy doing it. Most anybody could probably sit down and do it if they took the time. She says 'Oh no, they can't.' I say 'How do you know if you don't try it?'"