VIDEO: Modeler re-creates 1863 downtown Beaufort on miniature scale

emoody@beaufortgazette.comAugust 19, 2013 

Dennis Cannady, retired engineer, is reconstructing Bay Street, circa 1863 to be on public display in a diorama in the John Mark Verdier House.


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    The circa 1863 model of downtown Beaufort being built by Dennis Cannady is on display in the basement of the John Mark Verdier House at 801 Bay St., Beaufort. Admission to the basement is free, but donations are accepted. It is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

So far, recreating Beaufort's shoreline has been one of the biggest challenges.

But Dennis Cannady discovered that if he shaved foam insulation just right and sprinkled it with sanded grout, he could closely re-create the uneven texture carved by the eight-foot variation in tides. Coarse ground pepper makes convincing oyster shells and pluff mud. Add a little California lemon peel and celery seed, and he gets the hay and horse manure he needs to line Bay Street.

Cannady has carted in models of the Chisholm House, the Freedman's Bank and a handful of the other buildings that made up Civil War-era Beaufort. When he's finished -- and that probably will be more than a year and thousands of man hours from now -- Cannady will have reconstructed all of Bay Street in meticulous miniature.

Circa 1863.

"I'm creating materials of historic interest and I'm going to allow people to see the vision of what this town looked like 150 years ago," he said. "They don't have any idea of what this town looked like."

Using old maps and photographs, Cannady is building his scale version of Beaufort's main drag in the workshop behind his house in Habersham. As he finishes each of his models -- which he is assembling in the same order as the real versions, so visitors can see the progression -- he places them on public display in a diorama in the John Mark Verdier House.

He's building the display for the Historic Beaufort Foundation, which owns the Verdier House.

Foundation board president Conway Ivy said they are "blessed" to have such a talented modeler creating the exhibit.


The miniature Verdier House has not yet been placed in the actual Verdier House. Cannady, in a departure from fastidiousness, constructed the model out of order.

The 5.2-inch model is built in 1-to-120 ratio, like the rest of his handiwork. He held it aloft and declared: "This is living history and having fun with it."

Cannady has spent hours poring over maps and photos by Civil War photographer Sam Cooley and others. The goal is to give everything its proper proportion -- not just the buildings, but fences, trees and lot sizes, too.

What Cannady can't divine from photos, he discovers by plumbing Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. They reveal details such as double, columned porches on the rear of buildings along the Beaufort River. Those features are marked on the maps but were not always photographed.

"I went through the photographs looking for hints of the size of people and doors or anything like that that I could use to establish a scale in that photograph," he said. "There's enough photography available that you can take a little artistic license and come up with something that is probably not too far off."


Cannady, a retired engineer, appreciates details enough to take paint samples from existing buildings to match colors or count the window panes in photos before special ordering laser-cut pieces from an Indiana supplier.

"I love doing it," he said. "I've always built models and this is a way for me to be able to create this artwork and give it to the public."

Cannady's model ships are displayed in museums and exhibits across the country. Some local examples include the USS Wabash and SS Planter at the Verdier House and a model of bateaux at the Beaufort History Museum.

For his current project, Historic Beaufort Foundation is covering the cost of his materials. Cannady finds most of what he needs in modeling supply shops and hardware stores, but some features of the diorama require a little extra creativity.

And the result is as pleasing to the nose as it is to the eye.

The pepper and lemon peel he used to re-create Bay Street's road bed imparts a pleasant bouquet to his work. So does the grass made of dill. It all comes wafting up when the glass lids of the display case is lifted.

Cannady expects he will spend two years and more than 3,000 hours building the cases, shoreline and 70 buildings – 31 of which are significant structures, the others minor ones such as kitchens and carriage houses.

"I'm retired, so once I get the wife off to work, all I have left to do is sweep floors, get the groceries done and play with my house models," he joked.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at

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