Holiday train garden pulls into Cooksville

"The kids would come down the steps the next morning and see all the lights and the trains."

In the miniature town of Lionelsville, the model trains always run on time. Locomotive enthusiast Dennis Moore, who has built the city from the platforms up since 2010 at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center in Cooksville, makes sure of it.

Four sets of train tracks, two grounded and two elevated, are intertwined throughout the figurine community that is decorated for the holidays.

A dusting of snow covers the yards, rooftops and trees. White picket fences wrap each home with twinkling Christmas lights that glisten off the white pine tree bristles. Sparkling black pavement act as the city's roadways, connecting homes to churches, schools, police departments and fire departments — all coming together in Moore's train garden.

"The term 'train garden' is a Baltimore term," the Lisbon resident said. "People outside of Baltimore might not understand, but what happened was people would start building nativity scenes in the front of the rowhouses and then villages grew around that and then the train."

Moore's interest in railroading began in the late 1950s, growing up in Parkville and watching his father's work as a civil engineer for the B&O Railroad. As a teenager, Moore said his fascination with locomotives blossomed when he worked alongside his father and rode the train. But their work didn't stop at the tracks.

"Back in those days, my father and my grandfather would stay up Christmas Eve putting up a train garden; typically a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood with trains and villages on it," Moore said. "They would stay up the night before and then the kids would come down the steps the next morning and see all the lights and the trains. It was the most wonderful memory I can imagine in my life."

Using Lionel model train and railroad products, the family always set up a track around the Christmas tree. Since most trains run through a town, Moore said it was important to include Lionel's operating accessories, ranging from the locomotive's bells and whistles to ice skaters.

Moore said his favorite accessory from his childhood days can still be spotted in his 2015 train garden. An otherwise quiet area, a white shed with a dark red roof sits near the edge of the town, boarding one of the train tracks. With the push of a button, a man in a blue uniform and conductor's hat slides out the shed door, waving a red lantern to flag in the train.

All buttons are placed around the train garden for children to push and operate the different accessories. The most popular buttons are the train whistle and a waving American flag.

"Kids love pressing buttons," Moore said. "Looking is one thing, but when they can interact, that's when you got them."

Walking out of a classroom after preschool, 3-year-old Niky Datz ran over to the train garden, locking eyes with Mr. and Mrs. Claus as they sped across the tracks on a mining trolley.

"My favorite part is the Santa and the big train," he said. "There's one train that has cars on it."

When asked what his favorite button was, Niky did not hesitate to shout, "The whistle! I like the whistle!"

Laughing, Niky's mother, Cathy, said she makes sure they stop by the train garden for a half-hour every day to enjoy the year's newest additions, like the scavenger hunt.

"There are so many things going on here, so I'm going to see if people can find them," Moore said. "Can they find where the snow globe is? Next year, we're talking about prizes for people, maybe candy or something."

"The detail is amazing," Datz said, taking in the models' intricacies. "We saw when [Moore] was setting it up and I was totally amazed at how much he puts into it — especially making the buttons work."

Glenwood resident Jimmy Hamilton said he stopped to check out the train garden after his workout at the community center. Hamilton said his liked the ice skaters toward the center of the platform, slowly drifting across the powder-blue lake.

"I think it's a lot of work," Hamilton said. "It's extraordinary."

Every year, Moore said he sets out a little comment book, where visitors can write about their favorite parts of the train garden.

Susan Harry, the community's special events coordinator, said the train garden brings out old and new county residents every year.

"When people write in the book, it brings back their memories of their childhood, and that's what I enjoy," Harry said.

Moore said what started out as an enjoyable hobby has transformed into a desire to share his childhood happiness with the community.

"Trains are great for me, as a person, but now, the best part of it is sharing that interest with other people," Moore said. "I have a train room in my basement and that's great. Putting it up was so much fun, but it's more fun for me to come here and talk to people. I'll spend the day talking to old people and young people. Seeing the way people look at it, that's the best joy I could get."

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