At first glance, Spruce Mills is a typical—almost stereotypical—northern Ontario town. It has a drugstore and a gas station and a movie theatre. There is a church and a lumberyard and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Cars line the streets and people can be seen going about their daily business. A closer look, however, reveals Spruce Mills as somewhat atypical. There are, in fact, three single-screen cinemas—a rarity for any town in 2018—not to mention a drive-in that sits just at the edge of the downtown core. Passing buses are of a long-retired vintage, and there is no school for the local children to attend. Spruce Mills demands a close look, due not least of which to its being one-eighty-seventh the size of a regular city and only a few feet off the ground, located on a tabletop in a second-floor apartment in Toronto’s Roncesvalles area.
Eric Veillette began building Spruce Mills from HO-scale model railway buildings in 2004, while living in Montreal. “I lived a block away from a store called Udisco, which still exists,” he said, during a recent tour of his creation. “If you walk in there, it’s like walking into a model store from 1978—it hasn’t changed whatsoever. I’d been going in there to buy model monster kits and stuff like that, and one day I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll go see what’s on the second floor,’ and it was all model-railroad parts.” Veillette, a film buff and the program director of the Revue Cinema, founded Spruce Mills with the impulse buy of a model movie theatre, and the town expanded quickly from there. Spruce Mills relocated to Toronto with Veillette, in 2007, and its growth has continued in tandem with the size of Veillette’s own living spaces.
The pre-designed nature of model-train buildings doesn’t leave much room for creativity, so Veillette feeds his artistic side though the addition of small details, like lighting and interiors. (He once wallpapered the inside of a shop with scaled photographs of a Laura Secord.) He also creates and photographs “candid” scenes, which he posts to the Spruce Mills Instagram feed, along with brief fictional stories of the town and its residents. “The most fun thing for me has been Instagram,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I have a couple years of continuity and I have to go back and look at old posts to make sure I have the right names for people.”
Veillette, who grew up in the northern Ontario town of Timmins, has no grand grid plan for Spruce Mills: adding to the town is a therapeutic pursuit, though he would eventually like to display it at the Revue, which is only two blocks from his apartment at 1:1 scale, but a trip of more than six miles to the town’s 1:87-size residents. The one addition to the town Veillette has no plans to make, ironically, is a train line. “Part of my rationale, from a city-building standpoint, is Timmins got rid of its train years ago,” he said. “You have to take a bus out of town. So it’s very much like Timmins in that way.”