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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Renaissance Man of Buckholts

by Clay Coppedge

Civilization as we know it did not develop on John Greiner's place northwest of here but it might seem that way when you're touring his place via the Little River Miniature Railroad.

Greiner lives in a castle on the backroads - almost the backwoods - of Milam County. He built the castle himself, stone by stone, over the course of 20 years and 120 tons of limestone rock.

The Little River Miniature Railroad rolls above its turgid namesake, across Beetle Gulch and past the workshop with the words "Little River Aeroplane" written across the front.

Greiner is the man at the throttle. He built and installed the tracks on which the steam engine travels. The steam engine? It took three years of working two hours a night but, yes, he built that too. "I never missed a night," he says. "Of course, I worked on it some during the day too."

The first 1/8 replica steam engine has been such a success Greiner is building another one in his workshop.

"Let me say this," he says seriously. "No one needs two of these things."

With that said, Greiner leads a visitor into his shop for a peek at the new engine.

The homemade railroad draws a fair amount of attention, but a lot of people around here know Greiner best as the man who, for more than a dozen years, put on spectacular Fourth of July fireworks shows. His displays were more like paintings done with explosives instead of paint. His pyrotechnic creations stretched 150 feet across the sky and included spiraling wheels, flags and the Statue of Liberty. "It lit up the whole countryside," he says proudly. "Nobody in this country is doing anything like that any more."

Greiner is not doing anything like that anymore either. The one-hour spectacular took about six months of work to prepare. Then - poof - it was gone. "Eventually, I decided I wanted to do something that would still be there the next morning," he says. Since he has always liked trains, especially the old steam engines, he checked the internet for information on steam locomotives and found a site for people wanting to build their own trains. The Little River Miniature Railroad started rolling across the fertile fields of his imagination at that moment. In an understatement of epic proportions, he says, "I've always enjoyed building things."

The steam engine takes an hour to fire up so Greiner keeps a diesel locomotive handy for impromptu trips. He is at home the second Saturday of each month in case someone wants to drop by and tour the place by rail.

"It's quite a contraption," he says of the steam engine. "It's got a nice little engine in it. It will pull three or four heavy people, but it's a job running it.

"You have to make sure it's getting enough water to keep it cool and you have to make sure you have enough coal."

The Welsh steaming coal used for locomotives is no longer mined but Greiner found a man in New Jersey with the world's last supply of the stuff. He rented a truck, drove to New Jersey, bought a ton of Welsh steaming coal and drove it back to Milam County.

Greiner, 69, was born not far from New Jersey, in Philadelphia. He came to Texas from Philadelphia when he was nine years old, settling in Fort Worth with his father and stepmother. Fort Worth in the 40s and 50s was a good time and place to develop an appreciation for good country music, and Greiner did. These days you can often find him on a Saturday night at one local Jamboree or another, performing songs by Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Merle Haggard and others. He moved to Temple in 1965 as an employee of the Soil and Water Conservation Service, located first downtown and then at Blackland Research Center. He was already into building and flying large-scale, radio-controlled model airplanes and eventually became president of the Temple Aero Modelers club.

Not one to leave well enough alone, Greiner took a notion to build a plane he could fly from the cockpit. The designer of the plane Greiner eventually built died in a crash testing the prototype, but Greiner made his version work. He liked flying it as much as he thought he would but sold the plane in 2002. In his homemade castle, right next to the observatory with the homemade telescope, is the room where he keeps his old radio controlled airplanes. He's thinking of taking that hobby up again.

For the record, Greiner has also built his own computer and the software to run it. He built the telescope in the castle's belfry. The swimming pool - referred to as the "swimming hole" on its sign by the railroad tracks - is another homemade, handmade Greiner project.

Greiner might seem like a man who would crave retirement but he tried it once and didn't much care for iut.

"It took me by surprise, but I hated it," he says. "Blackland is more like a big family than anything else. I missed the workplace. I missed the people. I missed being part of a team, of working with other people toward a common goal. I didn't think I would, but I did."

Greiner now works part-time for the Texas Agriculture Experiment Station at the Blackland center. On his days off, he has plenty to keep him busy.

"I have enough things I'm either working on or have plans for that there's no way I'll ever get them all done," he says. "There just isn't enough time for everything I want to do."

That's not as surprising as the list of things for which Greiner has already done.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 28, 2004 Column

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