Within three minutes of our arrival at the quiet and unattended Medieval gates of Tiny World, a couple in a minivan screech to a stop. They've run over a cat in the curving stretch of road that passes within a few feet of this attraction.
"Was that your cat?" they ask, distraught. No, we answer, but there are lots of cats here. It probably belonged to the owner. They knock on the door of the big house, apologize to an old man, and leave.
The man is Ernest Helm, builder of Tiny World. "It's okay," he tells us. "They should know better'n to run out into the road." Ernest picks the dead one up by its tail, carries it to the barn, slings it inside, and closes the door. "Nothing you can do."
Ernest, an 82-year old man in a red-checked shirt, actually cares a lot about his cats. He's built Tiny World -- a small city -- and, for all intents and purposes, the cats own the place.
Tiny World (a name coined by a grandson) is one of those quirky backyard retiree endeavors, and Ernest has been at it since the late 1980s, when he built his first structure, "the cat house." It was not a miniature brothel but a small-scale Victorian home that the cats could live in, with a carpeted staircase suitable for scratching.
Over the years, Ernest added a general store, a gas station, log cabins, the Tiny World Court House, a train station, a church, a firehouse, a farm, and a bunch of houses. It's the model train view of reality, on a larger scale. His reason for building Tiny World: "It was something to do."
Ernest can see that we have a lot of questions that he may not have time to answer (maybe he's thinking about the cat), so he steers us to his "video room." It's a building with enough space for a TV, a comfortable couch, and hundreds of cassettes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. "My goof-off place," he explains.
"This is about Tiny World," Ernest says as he sticks a VHS tape, supposedly containing a video segment made by a local TV station, into the deck. But instead of seeing Tiny World, we see a Christmas Ricky Scaggs special. Ernest taped over it.
Ernest is untrained in the miniature arts, and describes himself as "an old wood butcher" (a guy who makes stuff out of wood by instinct -- not a trained carpenter). He has a natural eye for detail and design. The structures mainly line two landscaped paths, and "The hill gives it a good setting," Ernest notes. "If it was on flat ground it wouldn't look as good." Each structure takes a couple of months to build;his current project is to replace an older one he's no longer happy with.
There are touches reminiscent of other mini-worlds. Little sports cars gas up at the Texaco Filling Station, and diminutive furniture and tables nestle behind Plexiglas, like Roanoke, VA's Elvis City.
Time moves slowly in Tiny World. We visited in June, and there were still Christmas decorations and extension cords lying about. Christmas season is when Tiny World goes all out, adding lit decorations to each building. It is a popular holiday destination for local families.
Ernest tells us that his daughter and son-in-law are coming to clean up. "She's gonna start next week. I do the building, they do the settin' up."
"You gotta keep after this stuff," Ernest says, as he heads towards the barn. We wish him well, and keep an eye out for cats as we drive away.