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Diorama gives bird's-eye view of battlefield

March 01, 1999

Lester MasonBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




SHARPSBURG - War is frozen in time at Clara Bee Gifts.

Inside, thousands of small lead soldiers pose in an unfinished model of the Antietam Battlefield. They are marching, sounding horns, pointing rifles and lying in pools of painted blood.

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Lifelong Sharpsburg resident Lester "Sonny" Mason has spent two years making the miniature replica. He said it will help people picture the Sept. 17, 1862, conflict.

"So many people tour the battlefield," he said. "But they don't fully understand it."

The 234-square-foot diorama gives a bird's eye view of the fighting. It shows each stage of Antietam in still life, from the clash in the Cornfield to the battle at Burnside Bridge.

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If visitors see Mason's model first, he said, "they will get the feeling of what really happened."

Mason, 60, used more than 7,000 pieces on his project. He plans to turn it into a commercial exhibit with narration, slides, a fog machine, lighting and sound effects.

"We're shooting for an opening in May," he said.

Mason's wife, Lavinia, owns the gift shop, which sits beside Md. 65 just north of the battlefield. His project began after they visited Chattanooga, Tenn., two years ago.

They saw the "Confederama," a model showing the battles of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain. "I told my wife, 'I think I'm going to do something like this for the Antietam Battlefield,'" Mason said.

Mason said he got a lot of help to make the model historically accurate. He consulted Doug Bast, Boonsborough Museum of History owner, and David Foltz, a Frederick Community College history professor.

Foltz is writing the script for the exhibit, which Bast will narrate. As the voice describes each incident, fiber-optic lighting will focus on its location within the model and simulate such actions as rifle or cannon fire, Mason said.

"The hardest part was doing the terrain," he said. Using insulation board and plaster, he tried to reproduce the topography of the battlefield.

Mason and his friends hand-painted the soldiers. While working on models of Sharpsburg's buildings, he sometimes sketched the real ones, he said.

Mason enlisted an electrical engineer to work out the lighting and his uncle, a master electrician, helped install it.

Although he ran into snags along the way, each time it worked out, he said. A former construction worker, Mason didn't know much about models when he began to build his diorama.

He learned as he worked. "I guess I went into this thing blind," he said.

Although Mason says he's not the history buff he should be, he is proud of Sharpsburg's place in the Civil War.

"It's a heritage I'm fortunate enough to have by being a resident," he said.

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