Sonoma Stories: This town-in-miniature is home to a half-century of memories

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Retired firefighter Dave Lewis is far from the first handy, creative, meticulous guy to build a dazzlingly true-to-life miniature landscape with a model train running around or through it.

But this Windsor resident’s HO-scale railroad layout is more than that. Resting atop his and his wife’s dining table, it’s essentially an electrified, 4-foot by 8-foot, three-dimensional family album.

Its four houses are precise replicas of the homes Dave and Suzan have lived in since 1971.

Pointing to something in the driveway of one, the 75-year-old and vigorous Lewis says, “This was a house trailer we had when the kids were little babies.” Nearby are the red VW Beetle and copper Honda that Suzan drove long ago.

The layout’s fire station replicates the 1910 Oakland firehouse No. 4 that still stands on International Boulevard between 12th and 13th avenues and remains in service. Lewis was working there just over 50 years ago when in walked a visitor, a United Airlines flight attendant named Suzan Nannini.

“Her uncle worked there,” Lewis said. “She stopped in the firehouse to see her uncle and I was there.”

The fireman’s eyes and those of the stewardess met and bells rang that no one else in the station heard.

A model United jetliner suspended from the light fixture above the train scene commemorates the work Nannini did until she married Lewis in 1969.

The couple’s first house was in San Lorenzo. Subsequently, fond visits to Sonoma County led the Lewises to build in 1981 a home outside of Sebastopol.

Dave Lewis would spend one of his days off toiling on the house and would light up to see Suzan and their young daughters, Lisa and Gina, pull up with bags of burgers and fries and cold root beers from the former A&W in Sebastopol. He included the root beer stand in his layout.

From 1981 until 1996, when he retired from Oakland Fire Department as a battalion chief, Lewis commuted to work from western Sonoma County.

In 1995, he and Suzan moved into a home that he designed and a contractor built in Sebastopol, and in 2012 the couple settled into their current, pre-owned home in Windsor. Among the four miniature homes’ minute details: yard chickens, an air conditioner, a dog, a clothesline and individually painted roof tiles.

Lewis began the train project three years ago.

“I had to find something to keep me busy,” he said.

Having never owned a model railroad didn’t deter him from the ambition to build a layout and tracks that would usher him, Suzan, their daughters and three grandchildren down memory lane.

Lewis re-created his family’s four homes, to the scale in which 1 inch of the model equals 7.25 feet of the life-size, from photographs and from memory. Same with the miniature Oakland firehouse, outside of which Lewis placed a model of the 1943 Pirsch ladder truck that makes him shake his head recalling what an unruly bear it was to drive.

A longtime fisherman, Lewis crafted in his layout a stretch of the Russian River. He spanned it with a railroad bridge and went to great pains to make the artificial water look real.

“I relied a lot on the internet to figure out how to do stuff,” Lewis said.

Feeling that he needed to come up with a name for his memory-laden model village, he dubbed it Old Town. There’s a cemetery with a sign that bears the names of relatives, friends and neighbors who died through the years.

Lewis also built a replica of the Windsor gymnastics studio where 10-year-old granddaughter Lola White trains. At the urging of one of Lola’s brothers, Levi, who’s 9, Lewis constructed a snack shack.

The grandkids and their older brother, Jake, 13, and everybody in the family gets a kick out of the most unusual, personal and evocative tiny-train town.

“It’s given Dave a lot of joy, and me, too,” Suzan said.

But now, the Lewises are ready to let go of Old Town — and to reclaim the use of their dining table.

Dave Lewis wonders if the Boy Scouts or another youth organization would like to take the layout — no charge — and perhaps expand or modify it.

“I would love to have somebody put it to use,” he said.

Anyone interested in taking the train layout can shoot Lewis an email at

The town atop a table has been a great project for him, and he figures that for the right kids or others keen to get into model railroading, it could be a good start.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211.

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