BROOKVILLE — The staff at the Jefferson County History Center are busy this week as they prepare for the 101st annual Charles Bowdish Birthday Bash on Leap Day.
While the bash will be celebrated on Saturday, February 29, Bowdish’s actual birthday is Feb. 28. Born in 1896, his claim to fame would come through his artistic talents.
Bowdish, according to a book about him that was written by Carole A. Briggs, had four older brothers and two sisters. One of his brothers had died on the same day he was born. His three brothers and father were mechanically inclined, building objects such as merry-go-rounds and carousels for entertainment. They also designed scenery for shows performed by the Bowdish Stock Company.
Young Charles Bowdish would travel and perform with the company before he was drafted during World War I. He would return home with an injury and would no longer perform with the company. Instead he began a hobby that would make him famous to many generations in the future.
For his brother George and his new bride’s Christmas wedding, Bowdish created a miniature scene that included familiar Brookville buildings found on Main Street. Through the urging of a family friend, word got out and it is said 600 people came to the Bowdish house that year to view the display.
He would continue each Christmas to create a new display. According to Brigg’s book, “In 1928 over 800 people came to see the wonderful sight of the Bowdish tree and decorations.”
In 1930 Bowdish would recreated Brookville as it would have looked in 1830. The special display was for the town’s Centennial celebration.
Bowdish kept registers of the people who visited his annual display and by 1939, 100,000 people had viewed his holiday displays that were erected at Christmas and would remain up until February. The display at this time were still set up in his home at 8 S. White St.
His scenes included mills, trees and by the 1940s there were trains, horses and buggies, a waterfall and more. The annual exhibit would continue to grow until in 1954 Bowdish moved it from Brookville to Pittsburgh – to the Buhl Planetarium.
In 1954, Bowdish would do two displays – one for viewing in Brookville and one at Buhl Planetarium. It is said 3,000 people viewed it in Pittsburgh in one day and that 1,500 people visited Brookville in the first week of the display. He would do the same again in 1955 but that would be the last time he built a Brookville exhibit.
Bowdish continued to live in Brookville despite working with Buhl Planetarium as “model builder and consultant” until his death in 1988.
Bowdish’s miniature railroad display would later be moved to the Carnegie Science Center in 1992. It was in 1998 during a Victorian Christmas celebration in Brookville, that Bowdish models would once again appear, this time in the windows of a local store.
According to Briggs, in 2000 the Carnegie Science Center and the Jefferson County Historical Society came to an agreement that would allow those Bowdish models not in use at Carnegie to be displayed once again in Brookville.
Today, there is a gallery set aside at the Jefferson County History Center for an exhibit that brings Bowdish’s creativity to life.
This coming Saturday the trains will move along the tracks and various animations will be in action. The exhibit will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Kat Lyons, JCHC administrative coordinator, says, “The Bowdish crew has been working hard since January on the newly redesigned trains and animations. The trains will be chugging up and down the tracks and whistling through the tunnels. The Bowdish miniature display will showcase new arrangements of people, places and things relating to Jefferson County.”