When Grant Yates retired after a lengthy career as an auto mechanic, he and his wife, Joyce, sold their home in California and moved to Deer Park.
Never one to sit idle, Yates indulged his love of woodworking and began crafting birdhouses in his shop. He placed them in their spacious backyard among Joyce’s lush plants and flowers.
But it wasn’t a very satisfying hobby. “I never saw any birds in them!” he said. “I decided the birds didn’t need any more houses.”
Instead he unleashed his imagination. Over the years, using scraps of weathered wood, Yates has crafted an entire town in his backyard – a miniature wooden wonderland.
The view from their patio is magical. A recently completed boardwalk winds through the tiny town. Water trickles along a cleverly engineered elevated flume, turning several water wheels before spilling into the mill pond, which has become the centerpiece of Yates’ creation.
“I swam in an old mill pond in Utah, where I grew up,” he said. Yates pointed at the burbling pool of water. “A catfish I caught in Loon Lake lives in there.”
A weathered rowboat rests on the shoreline directly opposite the Mill Pond Fish and Bait Shop. An oar nailed above the bait shop door and a buoy affixed to the entryway are examples of the exquisite detail Yates lavishes on his creations.
Nearby, a bathhouse advertises baths for 25 cents. A white claw-footed tub can be seen through the windows.
Much of the village perches on platforms Yates made from large cable spools. “Inland Power and Light gave them away,” Yates said. “I added wooden bases to the spools.”
He’s had fun naming the buildings. The Deer Park water tower looms behind the Grantsville Grain feed store. Joyce’s Trading Post sits nearby. A hitching rail outside the Jot-em Down Merc. waits for a rider to tie up his horse and mosey in for supplies. A dog peers through the dusty glass windows. He seems to be staring at a cat perched on a counter inside the store.
Each building offers little surprises. A Texas Ranger gold star marks the jail. The cell doors swing at a touch. Tiny red lanterns glow from the windows of the Pony Express Office and a horseshoe hangs above the tavern door.
The couple finds many of the whimsical accessories at yard sales. “We love to go yard-saling,” said Joyce. “It’s what we do for entertainment.”
Yates often draws inspiration from old western movies. But sometimes he finds a small piece and crafts a building around it. Take for example, The Liberty Museum. Yates said, “I had the stained glass door, and the museum just grew from there.”
Through the lighted windows, a replica of the Liberty Bell can be seen, as well as several cannons.
Yates credits his daughter Sandra Riegle with the inspiration to add lighting features to the wooden village. Riegle lives close by, and is her dad’s right-hand woman when it comes to incorporating new ideas. “Sandy and I do the wiring,” said Yates.
Riegle and her five siblings grew up knowing their way around tools. “We used to hand him tools when he worked on cars,” she said. “I love to work with my dad. We have fun!”
Yates pointed to the copper-domed lights lining the boardwalk. “Do you know what those are made from?” he asked. “They’re copper toilet floats. I cut them in half and put lights in them.”
His wife added, “He cut his hand in the process.”
He shrugged. Wood working and nicks and cuts go hand-in-hand.
Yates pointed out another daughter-inspired creation – The Dalmatian Plantation. The sprawling house features wrap-around porches and French doors. As Riegle’s two Dalmatians nap nearby, a miniature version stands guard outside the entryway to the two-story wooden house.
For all his attention to detail, Yates is not a perfectionist. He gestured toward one of the flume’s waterwheels that doesn’t turn as it should. “One of my failings, I guess,” he said and shook his head.
Creating new buildings in his shop to add to the town helps this former-Californian wile away the cold weather months. Yates said, “I built two houses last winter.”
He doesn’t have a grand design for the ever growing village. “I just do whatever my brain says. I lay out a floor plan and then add to it.”
And how does his wooden town fare under its annual blanket of snow and ice? Yates said the inclement weather only adds to the old-west ghost town ambience. “When it comes to wood,” he said. “The older, the more weathered, the better.”