20 Years of "In the Interim"
Jim Dorsett wrote the "In The Interim" column, which he described
as cross between a journal entry, a snapshot, and a letter to friends,"
in every issue of The Scale Cabinetmaker. It provided him with
a place to discuss the goings-on with Dorsett Publicatitons, and later
the restoration of the Christiansburg Station. As with much of their lives, the history of The Scale Cabinetmaker is a history defined by geography, circumstance, and the intertwining of two lives.
Jim and Helen Dorsett were anything but newcomers to the miniature field when they started TSC.They met at Wichita City College in 1949, an art major and an english major from railroad families and a shared interest in modeling. After college and grad school (Helen at the Chicago Art Institute and Jim at McCormick Seminary), they moved to central Montana where Jim was sent by the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church. The manse,a small frame house, sat out on the sod near Hilger Montana, between the Mocassin and Judith Mountains. The house had just enough space to allow for a couch, couple of chairs, and their model railroad layout in the livingroom and a small formica topped table and four chrome chairs in the kitchen, which became Helen's studio and Jim's church office. While Jim was busy serving seven churches in a 5,000 square mile parish, Helen painted and spent the winter exploring architectural and decorative design and creating models of the buildings in his parish. According to Jim, it was not unusal for him to find Helen's doodles and sketches in the margins and on the back of his sermons.
Dorsett Miniatures officially started in 1961, after they had moved to Missouri, although Helen started building miniature furniture for her mother, a doll collectors, in 1958. When Jim decided to get his doctorate, they needed a new income stream in order to convince a bank to give them a mortgage on a house in Columbia, Missouri. Helen contacted a family friend on the West Coast, Miriam Peniston of Peniston Miniatures an started making models on commission. Over a weekend, Jim and Helen ginned up a business plan for the bank and Dorsett Miniatures was born.
In 1963, Helen published, through Calico Press in Wichita, Kansas, the first Cabinetmaker's Guide. It was filled with the plans and patterns for the Victorian furniture in her parent's house. A second Guide was published in 1968. Soon after its publication, Jim and Helen moved to Virginia, and Jim joined the Sociology faculty at Virginia Tech.
Between 1968 and 1975, Helen took an extended vacation from miniatures, spending her time, instead on rehabbing an old farm house in Virginia, gardening, and painting. It was a glorious house--large, rambling, with a porch that wrapped around two sides and a breath-taking view of Spruce Run, Doe Run, and Salt Pond Mountains. Although she still created the occasional miniature, her creative energy moved in other directions.
In 1974, Jim and Helen reached another crossroads. While Jim enjoyed teaching, he disliked university politics, faculty meetings, and the increasing emphasis on what he referred to as "bean counting sociology." They had a choice to make: he could stay in teaching, but at a smaller school or they could return to one of Helen's "what if's."
The Early Years, 1976-1982
The Scale Cabinetmaker started in their 100+ year old white frame farmhouse in Giles County, Virginia. The chopping block in the kitchen doubles as the boardroom table where editorial conferences were often accompanied by endless cups of coffee. Jim's study became the editorial office, and Helen's studio, once a spare bedroom, became the workshop. It didn't take long for the livingroom and the formal dining room to disappear under cases of journals, stacks of papers, and new tools. By the second year, the workshop had moved downstairs and workbenches replaced the Victorian parlor set. The walls of the diningroom and the hallway were lined with boxes of back issues and the diningroom table disappeared under mailing envelopes and memos and the directives from the local postmaster.
Jim often said that if they had known that 95% of all new publications never make it past their first year, they may not have tried TSC...but ignorance was, at least in this case, bliss. They cashed in his retirement from Virginia Tech to start the journal, betting that the time was right for a how-to journal for hobbiests. The miniatures hobby was at its height in the 1970s. While the number of people making miniatures was never on par with other scale crafts like model railroading, building dollhouses and dollhouse furniture became a mainstream hobby. Companies like X-Acto and Realife (Scientific) entered the kit market and model railroad/shipbuilding supply companies, like Northeastern Scale, began producing wood and other miniature products. The hobby was helped along by new publications, including Nutshell News (originally published by Kaye MacLaren and later edited by Sybil Harp), Dollhouse and Miniature News, Small Talk, and Miniature Collector.
While Helen worked on new books for the Cabinetmaker's Guide series and thought up projects for The Scale Cabinetmaker, Jim transferred his passion for teaching writing from the history of social thought to the social history of the decorative arts. He figured that they had the skill sets to go into publishing, at least the important ones, and the rest (including the arcane rules from the Post Office) would come with practice. Not surprising, it took a couple of years to begin to build a stable of writers and craftsmen for the journal. In private and over the chopping block, Jim would bemoan the apparent unwillingness of many of the craftsment in the hobby to write for The Scale Cabinetmaker because of the split between the collector's hobby and the builder's hobby. For almost the entire history of The Scale Cabinetmaker, the subscription list read like a "who's who" of miniature craftsman.
The Middle Years (1982-1990)
The middle years for TSC were characterized by three events and one trend.
In the summer of 1982, Jim and Helen decided to move TSC's base of operation
from Pembrook (in Giles County, Virginia) to Christiansburg, located in
Montgomery County (a more populace county) to the south. The journal's
graphic designer, the layout people, and the printer were located in Blacksburg
and Christiansburg, and Jim was spending more and more time commuting
between the two locations. They moved the main offices of TSC to downtown
Christainsburg, then to their house, and finally to the Cambria Depot
in 1985, following two years of restoration work on the structure.
From 1980 until 1988, the miniature field experience a slump, as did
the rest of the country. When folks need to tighten their belts, the first
thing the eliminate are expenditures on hobbies. By the beginning of 1982, a shakeout was occuring in the industry. Fewer people were subscribing to publications; fewer people were shopping the wide variety of stores and small shops; fewer companies were producing miniature-related product; and fewer people were attending miniature conventions. The number of wholesale orders began declining, so Dorsett Publications had to find ways to expand the business while lowering the overall cost. For hobby publications,
it was necessary to find a way to survive the slump, including moving
from a quarterly publication to one published six times per year. The
move lasted one year, and by the end of the year and the sixth issue,
all three (Jim, Helen, and Meghan) were exhausted and forced to acknowledge
that the publication schedule hadn't helped.
In 1983, Helen purchased the Cambria Depot for $19,000 on a handshake
and an unsecured note. The Depot had been hit by a two runaway boxcars,
and at the time she purchased the structure, it had no back wall, the
rear of the freighthouse was 18 inches out of plumb, and there was a demolition
order posted on the front door. For the next two years, Jim, Helen, and
any volunteers they could scrounge (including their daughter) rebuilt
the depot. It became the new home of Dorsett Publications late in 1984 and
continues as the corporate headquarters to this day.
By 1984, the recession was beginning to play out and the depot was stabilized, although it wouldn't get a new coat of paint or a listing in the National Register until 1985. Helen's studio moved to the track side waiting room (where she could watch the trains go by), the business offices moved to the street-side waiting room, and a new storage room and a mail room were constructed in the freight house, which meant they could move the boxes of magazines out of their diningroom.
From 1985 to 1988, Dorsett Publications enjoyed a golden age. Subscriptions and the level of creative energy climbed back to the pre-recession level. In addition, with the much larger studio space, Dorsett Publications began offering workshops. The 10th anniversary issue reflects the changes in The Scale Cabinetmaker and Dorsett Publications, with a front cover picture of one of their workshops rather than one of Helen's roomboxes or buildings. Indeed, the front covers and the changes in the masthead over the year reflect the changes in The Scale Cabinetmaker. For much of the late 1980s, Helen's work graced the cover and her boundless energy and imagination defined the publication.
Unfortunately, the euphoria of the mid-1980s came to a halt with Helen's diagnosis of cancer in 1988. Late in 1988, Helen began her battle with ovarian cancer. By mid-1989,
it was clear she was beginning to lose the battle. While she still spent
her days at the workbench, the chemo was taking its toll and the content
of the magazine began to center on Jim's modelling work and the work of
contributors. Volumes 13 and 14 reflectrf the shift. By Volume 14, Helen had stopped making miniatures and asking "what if." They built an apartment at the back of the depot, sold their house, and moved in 1989, so Jim could keep an eye on her while he continued to work on TSC. Helen died of cancer in August, 1990, as Volume 14 came to a close, bringing and end to
a collaboration that had started 40 years before with a common interest
in modelling and railroading .
Editor's Note: As new volumes of TSC are released on cd-rom, the In The Interim column will be added to this feature. (MHD)
The Late Years (1990-1995)
The late years of The Scale Cabinetmaker are marked by what was lost with Helen's death. Gone were the front cover roomboxes and her joyful imagination. TSC became more streamlined. Meghan Dorsett, their daughter, stepped in and took over the production, although she was living and teaching in Missouri. Production shifted to computers and away from the phototypesetting and layout. The color permanently disappeared from the front cover. While Jim still wrote introductions to the articles, the humor and inventiveness decreased. In many respects, the later years of TSC were characterized by a more bare-bones approach to the materials. Fortunately, for Jim, many of the long-term contributors stepped up and helped fill in the space left by Helen.
The Scale Cabinetmaker continued another five and a half years after Helen's death, but it was clear to everyone who knew Jim that his heart was no longer it. In his closing essay, Jim noted that, in essence, it is easier to start things than it is to bring them to an end. In 1995, at age 65 and beginning to feel the effects of COPD, Jim called it quits.
And a Post Script
The Scale Cabinetmaker was never a large publication, at least in terms of readership and the number of imprints. The peak printing run never exceeded 3,500 in the twenty years of production. It has, however, taken on a half life of its own. A quick glance at ebay and the number of issues for sale at prices far beyond what Jim could have imagined are a testament to the lasting power of what Jim and Helen Dorsett created with and in the journal.
In 2000, following the death of his second wife, Mary, Jim started talking about re-releasing TSC on cd-rom. Technology wasn't on his side, and he gave up trying to make it work a year before his own death in 2005. After nearly four years of wrestling with the materials and with our lack of techno-knowledge, The Scale Cabinetmaker, is alive and thriving in cd form. The first six years of TSC are back in print, with some of the material available for the first time in more than 30 years. It was Jim's hope that the materials would continue to provide useful instruction to miniaturists well beyond his years or ours. (mhd)