Railroad life

Frank Hickox

Photo By Larry Dalton

Frank Hickox, state-park interpreter for the California State Railroad Museum, finds work so much fun that he’s having trouble anticipating retirement. He’s quite happy casting in bronze and refurbishing light fixtures from old terminals and modifying the life-cast figures he built to fill the museum’s many exhibits. Some of these figures are so lifelike that they appear to breathe, to think and even to pass judgment on the artifacts around them.

What exhibits have you created here at the museum?

In just about everything in the museum, you’re going to see things that I’ve done. We can start at the people gallery. Years before I came to work for the museum, I was working for the Department of Parks and Recreation from another office. I was assigned to do all the life-cast figures about a year before the museum opened.

What are those figures?

The figures depict several of the trades that were used in railroading. Seven of the 11 are in this area right here, that we call the people garden—excuse me, the people gallery. They’ve been here ever since the museum opened in 1982. This [points to figure] is a Southern Pacific conductor modeled from a guy named Ken Yeo.

So, there are people you modeled the figures on?

These are real people. Some have worked for the museum. We had people doing the research. In fact, this gal right here [points to female figure], Faye Jonason, is one of them. She’s Rosie the Riveter. [Jonason] had done a lot of the research on these characters before I even got involved. She’s kind of an unsung hero of this whole mannequin project. I don’t call them mannequins; I call them life-cast, because they’re full-body casts. They’re very detailed. If you look at the hands, you can see the actual fingerprints on there, too. The porter—one of my favorite figures—I have him out in West Sacramento right now. We just got a large grant to do what they call a People in Labor exhibit. We’re putting them on different cars, like the waiter will go into the dining car. The porter will go into the moving, the rocking car. I have him in West Sacramento right now, modifying him.

How are they modifying him?

I created a little type of a thing that will mount against him, and little pivotal shoes, so he’ll be able to actually rock.

Let’s talk about the waiter for a second.

This was a fellow named Lester Pogue. And he was a writer at the time. He had back problems. He couldn’t stand long. It takes about an hour-and-a-half or so on each of the three basic molding processes: one for the head, and the hands is another session, and the body cast is another session. I was kind of experimenting, developing this particular way of doing life-cast figures. Far as I know, no other life-cast figures are done the way these are done.

Can you explain the process?

The head is cast in a mélange, which is kind of an algae, seaweed-based compound that you heat up and cool down to about 118 degrees. And it’s starting to turn a little bit solid at that point. It’s like a thick cream. You just put it over the full head.

You cast the ears?

It goes right inside the ears. It goes over everything. And what you do before you actually put the mélange on, you glue a little string over the top of the head, put the mélange on, cool it down, and you’re communicating with them through hand signals. As soon as they indicate that it’s cool, you have to put a plaster shell over the whole thing, too. It goes from a liquid to a thick butter stage. You want to catch it right there. If you wait too long, then it gets hard, and the string won’t break it, or it chips the plaster. At the critical time, you pull the string, and it slices through. It gives you two halves. You continue to let it set until the plaster gets hard. Then, you just pop off the head and face. That’s the initial mold … and that’s just the first stage. There’s 27 steps to all this.

Where did you learn this process?

I just kind of invented it myself. I’ve been doing taxidermy and furniture refinishing since I was a kid. I went to college as a park-management graduate, but I was doing so many fun things during college that I had an in with the park system, molding snakes and natural-history things mostly. And I liked it so much, I didn’t really seriously pursue becoming a park ranger. Eventually, I just decided, "I’m going to call myself an exhibit builder." I just invented as I went along, not knowing what I’m doing. When I started, I had no idea. I was scared to death. But by the time I got through these things, I had my own little technique, you know.