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Building Adventures

From toy trains to trimarans, Bill and Sheila Nichols have had an adventurous life
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Bill Nichols has created an elaborate HO Train layout in his basement that encompasses 1,200 square feet.

When Sheila McGrew married Bill Nichols in 1971, she sensed his adventurous spirit but didn’t anticipate the magnitude of his exploits or his artistry.

“He told me all about car trips his family took, so I figured we’d be going on car trips,” Sheila says.

Although Bill’s parents had taken him and his two siblings on annual camping and backpacking explorations in the Rockies starting in 1946 when he was 8, Bill didn’t like traveling by car.

The couple’s first “trip,” therefore, was a four-day, 300-mile jaunt — on bicycles — from their home in Schoolcraft to Sheila’s sister’s home, just south of the Mackinac Bridge, in 1973. “I couldn’t walk without a limp for six weeks,” Sheila remembers.

Yet, the following summer she was game to pedal more than 1,000 miles on a 17-day journey with Bill to New Orleans, camping in stands of trees next to roadways when motels weren’t handy.

Even Bill, in a mild-mannered voice, now admits this trip “was like climbing a mountain. I didn’t know if we could actually do it.”

With a hearty laugh, Sheila agrees the trip was “hard work,” but adds that it was “fun to talk about.”

They took that vacation to visit a friend Bill had met a decade earlier on a voyage from Benton Harbor to Chicago, then down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a 30-foot trimaran he had built.

Bill also constructed a 24-foot trimaran in the mid-1960s on which he and Sheila enjoyed their honeymoon on Lake Michigan.

Bill’s third trimaran, Alouette, which he constructed from 1975 to 1991, carried the couple across the Atlantic in 1992, after they retired from the local telephone company in Three Rivers, where they met when she worked as a switchboard operator and he as a repair technician.

“We put the sails up for the first time when we were leaving South Haven. Going around Michigan was our shakedown cruise,” Sheila says, recalling the joy of leisurely reading a book while underway on that warm August day.
They sailed to Beaver Island, pulling in there to ride out a storm, the first of many that would plague the rest of their voyage.

High winds streaking out of Saginaw Bay caused Sheila to wonder if Alouette would break apart while Bill studied the boat’s idiosyncrasies. “Even though I had built her, sailing her in foul weather was like dealing with a person I’d never met before,” he admits.

Coming out of New York Harbor in October, Bill and Sheila endured icy cold as they turned south, their thoughts stretching to Panama and the Pacific.

In the Bahamas the following spring, however, Sheila noted that 1992 was the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Americas, so the couple instead headed east with the intent of replicating that historic voyage in reverse.

“From the Bahamas to the Azores (a chain of islands about 1,300 miles west of mainland Portugal) took 30 days,” Sheila says. “There was gale after gale, and I was seasick the entire time. I weighed 126 pounds when we left and 96 when we arrived.”

“When we got to the Azores, we talked with other people,” Bill adds. “They said it was the worst crossing in 25 years. They had problems, too, like torn sails and furling mechanisms that failed.”

Bill and Sheila enjoyed three weeks in the Azores. They competed in an island-to-island regatta before leaving for Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands (off the coast of Morocco but an autonomous community of Spain) and a very short stint in Cape Verde (a nation of islands off the coast of West Africa). There, they encountered a depressed economy and snarky officials who required that they hire overpriced “boat watchers.” The experience, Bill says, reminded him to “love America.”

With tail winds pushing them quickly back to the Caribbean, Alouette surfed down waves in glorious fashion. “That’s when the boat comes alive, like a breathing creature,” Bill says. “It’s an experience you can’t really describe in words.”

Upon returning to Schoolcraft, Bill and Sheila parked their vessel in a barn on the farm where Bill’s great-grandparents had pioneered in 1837. Bill has lived on the property most of his life. When the couple married, his parents gave them land on which Bill constructed their home.

He describes the architecture of the home as federal, based on designs popular in the United States from the late 1700s to the 1840s. The interior contains a touch of Greek and early American, with wainscoting, linen folds, dental molding and columns topped with flower blossoms.

In 1977, even though the house wasn’t completely furnished, it was on the Christmas Tour of Homes sponsored by the Schoolcraft Ladies’ Library Association, an organization Sheila joined two years earlier. Bill tied up loose-end carpentry projects while Sheila borrowed furniture and other items from friends and relatives “to make the house a home,” she says. They returned all of the items immediately after the event was over.

“If anybody had come to the tour to case the place and came back to steal, they would say, ‘Oh, somebody beat me to it,’” Sheila says with a laugh.

Bill, who loves historical research, then came up with an idea to make the house even more appealing.

“He was working in the basement one day,” Sheila explains. “He came upstairs and said, ‘How would you like a library off the living room?’

‘Wait a minute,’ I replied. ‘You just want more room in the basement.’

‘Yeah,’ he said.”

She bargained with him and reached an agreement that he could add on to the east side of the house, including a larger basement, if he would also build a walk-in closet in their bedroom.

The “East Wing” that Bill constructed features Palladian windows with half-moon arches that he crafted, custom cabinetry, a desk and chair representative of Independence Hall and early American lights with reproduction Edison bulbs that “tease the eye” with shadow patterns on the ceiling.

The main feature, however, is the freestanding spiral staircase to the upper level. “It was meant to be a simple work of art,” Bill says, “but I wondered if I could actually do it.”

“I knew he could,” Sheila responds. “If he could build boats, he could build a stairway.” And of her walk-in closet, she adds, “It’s a room, not a closet!”

“I love working with wood,” Bill says. “It’s God’s gift to man — beautiful in the forest, and you can make beautiful things with it.”

On the other side of the house, next to the original, traditional stairway, Bill painted a mural that adorns three walls. The scene is a waterway with a hilly landscape, a paddle wheeler, sailboats, islands, a village with a church and, on the upper landing, clouds that drift into a sunset.

With a blend of humbleness and innate artistic expertise, Bill says, “I didn’t put too much detail in it. I’d rather err on the simple side than the cluttered side.”

Another notable “canvas” in Bill’s portfolio is his HO train layout in the basement, which prompted his original proposal to expand the house.

The array occupies 1,200 square feet, with 240 feet of track that holds more than two dozen engines and 300 cars. The miniature pieces — people, animals, trees, trestles, barns, houses, power poles, water towers, silos, signs — number in the hundreds.

The creation represents the landscape from Boston to Montreal, which Bill studied extensively through books and maps.

“An artist is constantly fooling the eye,” he says of the compressed distance between towns. “The hills in the background are smaller than in reality. The buildings in the background have less detail, and the ones in the foreground have more detail. That’s how art works — it’s a forced perspective.”

Yet the detail throughout is 100 percent true to 1954, including 48-star flags, yellow stop signs and vintage automobiles.

“There’s nothing bad or violent in here,” Bill says. “No fires. No cops chasing robbers. We can make the world any way we want. It’s enjoyable for me to create a world that’s not bad.”

With similar sentiment, Bill compares the train parties he has hosted for local friends and international guests to a theatrical stage. “When we put the trains in motion, Act One is on its way and we all have jobs,” he says. “We have to interact with each other. It’s not quite like Shakespeare, but it’s just as much fun.”

And while others vie to be the dispatcher, who has to make sure none of the trains collide, Bill shies away from that role. “I know how to build it, how to fix it, but I don’t like to operate it. That’s why we need different types of personality. The world would be a boring place if we were all like me or all like you.”

In addition to his work on boats, model trains and his house, Bill also repairs mechanical clocks and maintains a restored Model A and Model T.

While he keeps busy with all of these activities, Sheila is active in the community most days of the month. In addition to being a member of the Schoolcraft Ladies’ Library Association, she belongs to two historical societies, a United Methodist church and women’s group, the American Legion Auxiliary, Friendship Force of Western Michigan (a cultural exchange program) and two car clubs. She also bicycles regularly with her biking buddies. “Why join if you’re not going to be involved?” she asks.

This simple rhetorical question applies to her commitment to her husband, too. “I would never have ridden a bike to New Orleans, I would not have crossed an ocean on a sailboat, except that I married Bill,” she says.
“I have to be in motion, creating something,” Bill responds. “It can’t be just any kind of motion; it has to be highly focused. I enjoy the satisfaction of completing a project from A to Z.”

Sheila gives him a look. “Except they really don’t quite —”

“Well, I get to W or X anyway,” Bill says, flashing a boyish grin.

Sheila emits another hearty laugh.

In those expressions of charm and laughter lies the secret of their successful life together: to love and accept — even when the adventures don’t go as planned.

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I love working with wood. It’s God’s gift to man — beautiful in the forest, and you can make beautiful things with it.

– Bill Nichols