Ellicott City firefighters' train garden always draws a crowd

The neon sign flashing "Casino" seems out of sync with the rest of the idyllic Christmas village on display at the Ellicott City Fire Station, reminding onlookers of Pottersville, the racy city that would have replaced homey Bedford Falls if George Bailey hadn't been born in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Down the hill, amid tidy drifts of fake snow, a worker puts the finishing touches on a billboard for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad that entices riders with the slogan "Sleep like a Kitten," written in old-timey cursive.

There's also a flying Santa and reindeer, moving North Pole carnival rides, an animated zoo and so much more that observers stand transfixed, soaking in all the elaborate commotion whirling about eight O-scale trains that chug along in choreographed wonder.

The two-tier, 10-by 24-foot Christmas train garden, now in its 14th year, attracts 15,000 visitors each December, says Dave Balthis, a former deputy chief and train garden organizer who retired in 2009 after 29 years of service.

The highly sought-out display — which costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to mount each year — didn't start out as a primary attraction in 1998, but was "used as bait," he said.

"We used the train garden as a way to get citizens to come to the firehouse and run through our safety display," said Balthis, an Ellicott City native who now works for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. A safety-hazard scavenger hunt was staged in areas set up like rooms in a house for people who first viewed the much-smaller, one-tier train garden.

"While most public education efforts require sending someone out to a small group, here was a way to deliver a fire-safety education to 15,000 visitors who came to us," he said, noting that the safety display was discontinued a couple of years ago. "The public has asked about it and people still want to bring their kids, so I hope the county will take it back on."

The number of people viewing the train garden is unscientifically based on candy-cane consumption, since most people don't take time to sign the station's guestbook, he said.

"We figure that we order 9,000 candy canes to hand out and a lot of people don't take one, but we still run out of them, so we're comfortable with that estimate," Balthis said.

Among recent visitors were Catherine and Gerard Boarman, who have taken their sons, Henry, almost 6, and Jake, 4, to see the train garden every year since they were born. The couple keeps a train set up year-round in a special room in the basement of their Ellicott City home. And Gerard, who grew up in Dunloggin, even sets one up for the holidays at his U.S. 40 liquor store, which his father and fellow worker, Bill Boarman, runs and maintains.

"Christmas Eve is the best day to avoid the crowds," Catherine advised about timing a visit to the firefighters' display. She added that she was planning to return again with the boys Dec. 24 to give them more room to maneuver and check everything out. "But right now, we're still looking for the Abominable Snowman."

Frequent visitors to the station, located at Montgomery Road and Old Columbia Pike, know she's referring to one of the miniature characters from the still-popular 1964 stop-motion animation film "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" that are sprinkled among the townspeople. People make a nostalgic game out of spotting them, she said, as other guests were overheard looking for prospector Yukon Cornelius, an apparently hard-to-find figurine this year.

Train gardens, which Balthis said were brought to the Baltimore area by German immigrants in the late 1800s, have a unique and somewhat inexplicable connection to Christmas, yet it's one that Howard County residents continue to hold dear.

That's why 15 community residents pitch in to help firefighters painstakingly assemble the display for seven weeks beginning in mid-October, he said.

"For the most part, firefighters are responsible for running calls and Ellicott City is one of the county's busiest stations," he said. It's not unlikely that an engine will go out on a call while the train garden is being erected or when it's open to the public, so volunteers provide invaluable help, he said.

The Ellicott City display is also one of the sites aligned with a toy drive organized by the county's chapter of the Phoenix Sentinels, a national organization of African-American firefighters, said Capt. Lou Winston.

"Back in 1992, we decided we wanted to do something for low-income communities where we'd run calls and seen that those families needed our help in other ways," said Winston, who's stationed at the Bethany firehouse on Route 99 and also handles staffing the train garden.

Firefighters would arrive in a community and sound the engine's siren back then, drawing people out of their homes for an impromptu toy giveaway.

"We'd load the kids down and still have extra stuff left over," he recalled, so they searched for indoor sites to collect new, unwrapped toys and chose the Ellicott City station as one because its train garden was already drawing so many visitors.

Today, between 200 and 250 families receive toys, games and books each year in the drive, 60 percent of them collected at the Ellicott City station. They are then distributed at the Roger Carter Center in Ellicott City and at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia each Christmas Eve, when people know to line up in anticipation without any official notice of the giveaway, Winston said.

Joshua Skillington was one of the few viewing the train garden Wednesday night who doesn't have kids; he came with his wife, Danushka. A newly-hatched fan of model trains, he said he'd sneaked his father's decades-old, but long-untouched, train set out of his parents' Ellicott City home last week and set it up at his Catonsville apartment to surprise him.

After seeing how his father, James, got "really stirred up" at the sight of it after so many years, Skillington said they bought tools to fix up the train together and the project ended up inspiring him to buy his first train set.

"This train garden is just so impressive," he said incredulously, adding he and his wife were taking photos at the fire station in order to recreate favorite features and layout techniques.

Balthis isn't surprised by the sentimental feelings.

"We're finding that people who were brought to our display as 10-year-olds are now returning at age 24 and bringing their kids," he said. "The parking lot is overflowing all month long. This has become something of a tradition in Howard County."

The train garden, at 4150 Montgomery Road in Ellicott City, remains open through Jan. 1. Hours and other information are available by calling 410-313-2036 or by visiting ellicottcityvfa.com.

jholzberg76@msn.com

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