Anyone who’s ever pursued a dream knows how hard it can be to keep it from going off the rails — but those folks have never met retired shipbuilder John Bemis.
The Canby resident has spent more than four decades cultivating, tending, trimming and carefully sculpting a row of Amur privet hedges into the shape of a 150-foot-long, multi-car train that stretches around the corner of the house he and his wife own on Grant Street in south Canby.
The topiary has a-track-ted a lot of attention over the years, including from the press, and this summer was featured in The Boilermaker Reporter, the official magazine of the international trade union representing boilermakers, shipbuilders, blacksmiths and other workers. (Bemis was a member of the Portland chapter before his retirement.)
As he told the Reporter, Bemis’ love of trains stems from his boyhood growing up in a small town near Pittsburgh, where he grew up watching the steam engines chug along the Ohio River.
He first clocked the idea of a train-shaped hedge on a mission trip with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay, when he saw one trimmed to resemble a circus train — complete with animals.
When he and his wife, Anette Bemis, bought their home in the then-new neighborhood in 1978 and saw the bare lot just begging for some landscaping — John had just the ticket.
“When we purchased our home, my first thought was that the corner was perfect for a train, so I planted one,” Bemis says. “It took three years before it was big enough to trim, but over the years, my train has caught the eyes of many people.”
The hedge has become something of a Canby landmark, which is saying something in a town historically known for trains — of the mobile variety. It takes Bemis about four hours every 10 days to keep the sculpture in shape, and he has gone through at least five trimmers in the past 40 years — the last two professional-grade.
The hedge sculpture was looking a little worse for the wear back in May, Bemis reported on the Canby Now Facebook group, saying he had to cut back the coal car and boxcar because they had apparently been sprayed. Fortunately, they grew back.
As Bemis himself says: Mother Nature is very forgiving.