TINY TOWN Matthew Rowe

There is a Tiny Town of my dreams. Tiny Town is a real place, of course, in my hometown of Hot Springs. It is a unique tourist destination on Whittington Avenue, just northwest of downtown. I visited once as a child, and I remember it as this odd place, created as a labor of love, which is exactly the kind of thing I value now that I am older.

It’s been a grail of mine to visit Tiny Town again as an adult, but every time over the last 20 years I’ve gone by to check to see if it’s open, no luck. 

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Tiny Town was the creation of one man, Frank Moshinskie. He spent nearly 60 years creating and constantly developing an elaborate and ornate model city made out of sawdust and discarded items, and for decades Tiny Town has been a tourist destination.

Planes and hot air balloons circle over Tiny Town, as trains move throughout this small scale world. Houses, campgrounds, parks and architectural wonders all share real estate in Tiny Town, along with miniature cars, people and bears.

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Matthew Rowe

Moshinskie created his first model in 1930 at the age of 13 while living in Louisiana. He continued to add on and create more miniatures through the next few decades and his model town grew, becoming a neighborhood hangout at his home in Pennsylvania. After a tornado damaged that house, he took the insurance money and moved Tiny Town to Hot Springs as a tourist attraction in 1962.

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On the surface, 1962 was an incredible year for Hot Springs. Sports Illustrated wrote in March of that year: 

“The most unusual spa in the United States, Hot Springs is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Last week marked the middle of the town’s traditional spring season, and by all odds this one shapes up as the hottest in history — unless the FBI interferes.”

Of course, the Feds did interfere, and the economic engine that powered this weird wonderful city of Hot Springs was ripped out in 1964, two years after Moshinskie moved to town.

Matthew Rowe

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Tiny Town continued to grow, in contrast to what was happening outside the walls of its building. All the big projects in Hot Springs, the hotels and casinos and spas and civic improvements, halted. Horse racing was allowed to continue during its season, but the city was forced to figure a way to power its economy without casino gambling and the tourism dollars it provided. 

I had been to Tiny Town once before, in 1992 on a second grade field trip. I remember thinking it was slightly absurd and clever and weird, but done from a very loving place that compelled its creator to create. I’ve always wanted to see if that feeling held up, but I’ve never had a chance.

I often visit Hot Springs as a tourist from Little Rock. I like visiting. For me, it is a deeply silly place with a history that encourages a search for meaning or at least some understanding of why a place like this exists. I think everyone tries to make sense of where they came from so they can understand who they are. Today my family and I are going for a day trip to Mid-America Science Museum to visit DinoTrek, an outdoor walking trail exhibit with large, sculptural dinosaurs. 

My 3-year-old son is in the middle of a dinosaur obsession, and as we walk past these dino displays, he informs me that the real dinosaurs died 65 million years ago and the allosaurus were much, much, much bigger than the deinonychus we saw. Aside from those very important criticisms, he has a great time.

It is a nice walk, and one of the many ways you can walk through history in Hot Springs, even though its past is long gone. Hot Springs has an endlessly fascinating history, and it’s very easy to get stuck on that. 

Matthew Rowe

In fact, for anyone visiting their hometown, a game of “yoostabeah” is inevitable. As in, “that red-roofed bank yoostabeah Pizza Hut.” A simple drive down a familiar street in your hometown is an exercise in your family’s patience as you yoostabeah every single familiar place you pass. 

In Hot Springs, yoostabeah is a way of life. Every turn and every step is a yoostabeah. This empty lot? It yoostabeah baseball field where the greatest players of all time played pickup games. This restaurant? Yoostabeah place where people came from all over to try to heal the things that can’t be healed. This assisted living facility? Yoostabeah cosmopolitan casino and hotel. You can spend all of your time in Hot Springs playing this game. 

After casino gambling was outlawed, Hot Springs worked quickly to figure out a new angle, a new way to power its economic engine. A pivot to rebranding Hot Springs as a family-friendly resort town was the play. An amusement park was built in the late ’70s. The lake resorts became places to have fun with the kids. The OG hands-on family attraction Mid-America Science Museum opened.

Meanwhile, Moshinskie continued to add on to Tiny Town. Many of the scenes in Tiny Town are places he liked to visit with his family. Niagara Falls, Cape Hatteras, Mount Rushmore. It continued to grow as a reflection of the person creating it. Moshinskie even created the house where he made Tiny Town, along with miniature versions of him and his wife. 

 

Frank Moshinskie died in 1998, and Tiny Town has not grown since then. Repairs have been made, and maintenance has been done, but no new developments. Its hours of operation seem erratic, or at least unknown to me.

After our DinoTrek, we decided to pick up a pizza downtown and find somewhere to eat outside. While I was driving, I was reminded of a variant game of yoostabeah I played in Hot Springs while I was growing up in the ’90s: “sposetabeah.” 

As in, this town was sposetabeah another Branson, Missouri. That aging hotel was sposetabeah bought by someone who was going to renovate it. These unused bath houses were sposetabeah saved and preserved. None of those things were happening. Spostabeah dominated. The family-friendly resort angle hadn’t brought in enough to keep Hot Springs from inevitable decay, let alone power an economic engine that was overbuilt for our current situation.

We picked up our pizza and made our way to Whittington Park, which happens to be across the street from the Tiny Town building. As we ate, someone left the building. Someone came into the building. It became apparent that Tiny Town was open, and this was my chance to finally see it again as an adult.

As you enter Tiny Town, you are greeted by Frank’s son Charles, who now leads the tour. Charles is a very kind and experienced tour guide, and seems incredibly proud of the very large and meticulously designed miniature city his dad created. Just past the doors, you walk into a cinder block room containing an enormous miniature world, Tiny Town.

Charles leads us around the periphery of the room, pointing out highlights. He’s not immune to yoostabeah, as he tells us the grass yoostabeah sawdust, some of the miniatures yoostabeah cans of tuna, and in fact everything on this table was built with spare and discarded parts. 

My son is enthralled by it all. There are buttons all around the edge of Tiny Town, and visitors are encouraged to press them to control the miniatures. Several buttons move people, objects or trains, and others play music. He walks to each button and presses and waits and watches. There are no dinosaurs in Tiny Town, no problems with scale, and no mass extinction event. I wonder if there’s any possible way he’ll have some hazy memory of this place in the future.

Being back in this room, my memories come back. Memories of when I first visited as an 8-year-old in 1992. Frank Moshinskie led the tour. He seemed proud of his creation, but also very pleased at our reactions to it. We all enjoyed hitting the buttons and seeing the small pieces come in and out of view. I also very much remember him pointing out to us that some of the people in Tiny Town were based on actual celebrities: Elvis, Mr. T,  Fonzie, and Sonny and Cher. I knew Fonzie from reruns, but I felt like his placement here was a little out of touch and I wondered if any of my classmates even knew who Fonzie was. 

I didn’t realize that my understanding of Fonzie didn’t matter, as each part of Tiny Town was frozen in time, free from existential yoostabeahs and suppostabeahs. Tiny Town is now all that it is, was and ever will be. 

Reconciling, confronting and reevaluating your memories of a place growing up can be a very positive action. I’ve always felt a need to figure out Hot Springs as a way of figuring out who I am and how growing up here affected me.

Matthew Rowe

I’m glad I get to revisit Hot Springs again and again as a tourist. It seems like its most recent pivot is to just lean into the things that are good about it. The natural beauty of mountains and lakes. The uniqueness of the horse track. The National Park. Yoostabeah and sposetabeah aren’t things I think about as burdens when I visit here, just points along the way.

I’m also incredibly glad I got to revisit Tiny Town and my memories of it. Most returns to a place one remembers from childhood will reveal a place that seems smaller, less impressive. Tiny Town was not that. It seemed bigger to me. More impressive. Much weirder. More of a labor of love, an obsession and exhibition of a creator’s vision. Not a bad way to earn a buck in a tourist town.

Tiny Town is open Mon.-Sat. (March-October) 10 a.m.-3 p.m. November through February, it is open depending upon how the weather is at that moment. tinytowntrains.com

DinoTrek at Mid-America Science Museum is open Thu.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sun. 1 p.m.-5 p.m. midamericamuseum.org.