Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Meet the 78-year-old man who created a miniature Antietam

Lester "Sonny" Mason poses by his 1950 Mack Truck in front of the Clara Bee gift shop
on Route 65 in Sharpsburg, Md. The truck, he said, can be yours for $50,000.
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Hard of hearing, Mason, who turns 79 in October, enjoys 
telling how he created his Antietam diorama.
Lester "Sonny" Mason's idea for his Civil War masterpiece was born nearly 20 years ago on a long drive back home to Sharpsburg, Md., from a trip in the South. While at Lookout Mountain, the former Civil War reenactor became enamored with a diorama of thousands of miniature soldiers fighting the November 1863 "Battle Above the Clouds" and other clashes in the Chattanooga, Tenn., area.

"You know," he said to his wife as they traveled up Interstate 81, "I'm going do something like that for Antietam."

Lavinia Mason, better known as "Bubbie," was skeptical. But she couldn't dissuade her hard-headed husband, a nearly lifetime Sharpsburg resident, from creating a diorama for the battle fought almost in their own front yard. Sonny planned to bill it as a major attraction for the family's Clara Bee gift shop -- named for Civil War nurse Clara Barton -- on Maryland Route 65, a little more than a mile from the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center.

And so Mason -- the self-described "poor man who lives like a king" -- got to work.

The sign in front of the Clara Bee, named for 
Civil War nurse Clara Barton, on
Maryland Route 65 in Sharpsburg, near 
the Antietam battlefield.
For about $2.50 apiece, he purchased thousands of miniature, lead-pewter soldiers, hand-painting them in blue and gray "day and night" with the aid of friends. He built a tiny Burnside Bridge, the iconic battlefield landmark, as well houses and churches for the village of Sharpsburg and barns for the well-known farms outside town. He created terrain to mirror the rolling hills of the real battlefield. He even added painted pools of red blood by dead and wounded soldiers.

Because he wanted a whiz-bang light display with artillery and gunfire and more, he purchased fiber-optic cable and hired an electrical engineer to make it all work. For an audio narration for the battle diorama, he turned to Doug Bast, a former schoolmate and owner of the excellent Boonsborough (Md.) Museum of History.  A local professor provided guidance regarding the historical accuracy of the 13- x 18-foot diorama.

The battle is waged near the village of Sharpsburg, Md.
Yankees storm across Burnside Bridge in Sonny Mason's Antietam diorama.
Mason's son, 58-year-old Doug, "The
 "Bird Man of the Clara Bee," with a
live parakeet on his head.
All told, Mason, a retired construction worker/truck factory worker, figures he invested $50,000 and thousands of man hours in his two-year project. Ninety percent of his brainchild, he estimates, was created by his own labor. His son Doug -- one of the Masons' four children and "The Birdman of the Clara Bee" -- also pitched in.

"God pushed me through it," said Mason, a 5-foot-3, 78-year-old bundle of determination and quick quips. "I never doubted I'd get it done."

Shortly after the project was completed in 1999, a large, gold-and gray painted sign was placed atop the Clara Bee. "See & Hear The Battle of Antietam -- In Miniature," it proclaims. The Masons have lived in the red-brick building with faux white pillars since Sonny had it built in 1968. In addition to its use as the Masons' residence and a gift shop, where the family sold Civil War relics, the building once included a restaurant run by Sonny's beloved Bubbie, a Loretta Lynn-lookalike.

Since the Antietam diorama debuted, it has attracted a wide range of visitors, including military men from the U.S. Army and Navy. But interest has waned in recent years, admitted 58-year-old Doug, who said his full-time job is keeping his hard-of-hearing father organized. The diorama is semi-retired, although for a monetary donation Mason is almost always willing to show you his battlefield in the cramped, first-floor room behind the Clara Bee's double-door entrance.

The inner workings of Sonny Mason's Antietam
 diorama. He hired an electrical engineer
 for the project.
Last  year, Bubbie, Sonny's wife of 59 years, died after a long battle with cancer. Her illness and death hit Mason hard. "I had a good, Christian mother and a good, Christian wife, a father I respected and a good son and daughters," Mason said. "That's what has held me together."

Sonny, who turns 79 in October, jokes that he wouldn't mind finding a girlfriend -- "someone about 40 to 45 years old," he said. And for the right price -- say, $55,000 -- he'd be willing to part with the project for which he devoted a major chunk of his life. He's eager to sell the original, 1950 green Mack truck parked in front of the Clara Bee, too. It's yours for about $50K.

But be mindful -- Sonny Mason might drive a hard bargain.

"I'm one of kind," he said with a laugh. "When they made me, they throws away the mold."

Mason with photos of his beloved wife, Bubbie, who died last year after a long battle with cancer.

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