Bill Michaels wins 'Best in Show' for 1920s sawmill

Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2012, 8:24 pm
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john Marx,
It is in the neighborhood of 7 on a fall Saturday morning and the face of station 97X's Bill (Obenauf) Michaels is a bright, blushing shade of red.

You'd think someone who has spent 25 years making people laugh, squirm and burn on local radio would be hard to embarrass.

Not so.

Before Michaels is a computer image of his national champion diorama, chosen "Best in Show'' recently at the 2012 Fine Scale Model Railroad Expo. The who's who of scale building gathered last week at Lancaster, Penn., to crown champions.

Michaels is blushing, because Greg Dwyer, his radio partner for those 25 years, is singing his pal's praises to any and all amid 97X remote. And the radio vet, though proud of his work, struggled with the attention.

"When an expert in the field calls Billy's work 'Smithsonian' (Museum) caliber, I think that means it's pretty good,'' Dwyer said of Michaels, whose real last name is Obenauf. "But in typical Billy fashion, he didn't say anything about it. I had to find out for myself that he won this huge award. The body of work -- what he accomplished -- is beyond amazing.''

Dwyer's assessment is correct. Michael's attention to detail with the Twin Mills project -- a replica of a 1920s sawmill -- is off the charts. Right down to how he makes the faux water surrounding the mill look like real water.

The project, the Michaels' second ever, took 18 months to bring to life. There would be medium-sized spans away from the sawmill, but some days he would spend up to to five hours bringing the body of work to life.

"We like to snowmobile, and last winter, there wasn't any snow, so I had some extra time,'' Michaels said, noting he couldn't pinpoint how much is invested in the project, but that it was more than the $1,000 first-place prize he received. "And this summer, it was way too hot to do anything, so I worked on the mill. My daughter had back surgery also this year, so I would work on it, take my mind off her struggles.''

The sawmill, Michaels said, was built one piece at a time. The wooden sheds are coffee stirs, the gravel surrounding the mill is pebbles from the side of the road garnered on trips to Wisconsin. The water, perfectly constructed, is seven layers of resin that Michaels said took the most time to perfect.

The sheds are shaded with a chalk mix, and the shrubbery is bark and yard clippings from Michaels' Davenport home. Each shingle of each shed was hand-cut and attached. The logs in the faux water are bird perches found at a store in Wisconsin.

Even the average eye can see why Michaels -- modest to a fault -- is a champion.

"There was a lot of research and a lot of ideas from so many other people that went into this,'' Michaels said. "I had a lot of great people who shared their expertise with me.''

The champion diorama rests today in Michaels' home, waiting for a model train to occupy its tracks. As for other projects, Michaels said there will be more, but on what scale he isn't sure.
What is for sure is if the radio veteran ever ditches his day job, there's another career waiting.

Columnist John Marx can be reached at (309) 757-8388 or


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