For many Carroll residents, a visit to the Pleasant Valley Christmas Train Garden is a touchstone of the holiday season that brings them back year after year.
And each year for the past 30 years, there have been others who discover the garden's magic for the first time and make plans to return to the Pleasant Valley Community Fire Company station in pastoral hamlet of Pleasant Valley for a visit the following December as well.
Mike Chrest, of Union Mills, a long-time volunteer firefighter, has been the principal curator and keeper of the roughly 18- by 18-foot HO-gauge train garden, which casts a warm glow in the dimly lit gallery-sized room where it is housed.
Each year, in late August or early September, Chrest and a handful of fellow model railroad buffs start preparing the display for its mid-November opening.
"We just add something new or replace something every year," Chrest said. "Sometimes things change, but the amusement park area is always the same. It's always something that kids like.
"Over the years, we've almost watched some kids grow up; some of them we see here year after year, and some are here every weekend each year," he added with a look of satisfaction.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Chrest was busy answering visitors' questions about the display's painstaking details, which include miniature representations of local businesses that help sponsor the garden.
Among those in the display are: Baugher's Market, in Westminster; Tevis Energy Co., with offices in Westminster and Hampstead; Brewers Market, a Silver Run liquor store; and Baldwin's, an upscale Sykesville restaurant located in that Carroll County town's stately Victorian era train station.
The display doesn't represent any particular locale and includes a little bit of everything:
• farms with pigs and cows;
• suburban houses;
• an amusement park with a carousel, Ferris wheel, roller coaster and whirligig;
• a Seattle-style space needle and an HO-gauge monorail.
The four HO trains (some with multiple locomotives) that are running at any given time pass by or through feed mills, factories, a railroad roundhouse, a church and cemetery, rolling fields and a pine tree-studded mountain scape featuring tunnels and boulders.
On this particular Sunday, a Ravens game was playing on a wall-mounted TV, while a smaller TV in one corner broadcast video footage captured by a camera mounted on one of the HO-gauge locomotives.
There was a palpable buzz of excitement and nostalgia among the several dozen mid-afternoon visitors, frequently punctuated by shouts and squeals of delight from the small children, who were clearly enthralled.
Justin, a Westminster man who chose not to give his last name, was there with his girlfriend's nephew, a youngster named Ben.
"I imagine this is something I'll look forward to coming back to every year, as long as I live in this area," Justin said as Ben scurried excitedly back and forth between the train garden and a list of some of its features on a nearby wall.
"Ben is learning to read, and he's getting a big kick out of looking at the list, then going and locating that particular thing in the train garden," Justin added with a grin.
Donna Heil, of Taneytown, was also a first-time visitor. She had dropped by with her daughter, Somer, 12, and son, Devin, 3, in tow. They were clearly loving the garden and they stayed for a long time.
"We were going to go to the train garden down in Glyndon, then we saw something about the amusement park they have in this display," Heil said. "So I got on my phone's navigation system and realized that Pleasant Valley was right down the road from us.
"It's awesome," she added. "Devin is just fascinated with trains and he just loves this. He could stay here all day, and he'll cry when we have to leave."
The Pleasant Valley Christmas Train Garden is located in the Pleasant Valley Community Fire Company's station, 2030 S. Pleasant Valley Road, Westminster, 410-848-1977.
It will be open Dec.23, noon to 6 p.m., Dec. 24, 3-7 p.m., Dec. 26-28, 4-8 p.m. , Dec. 29-30, noon to 6 p.m. and Jan. 5-6, noon to 4 p.m.
For directions and information, go to http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Community-Fire-Co-Train-Garden/125142754214570.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun