When someone suggests that the Baltimore holiday train garden tradition has disappeared, I head to Highlandtown for reassurance.
A pair of neighborhood volunteers greeted me on my most recent visit to unveil this year's little world of roaring trains, snowy valleys and tiny streetlights.
Housed in the Baltimore City Fire Department's Engine House No. 41, this display fulfilled my expectations: It was noisy, a little crazy and infused with holiday spirit. The show makes its seasonal debut at 11 a.m. Saturday. (The grand opening is 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 4.)
In keeping with the neighborhood's growing Latino population, the display is also described as a "Jardin de Trenes en Miniatura en Highlandtown," on a flier distributed throughout the community.
I met with Terry Maillar and Joe Manfre, the dedicated "gardeners" who assemble — and will later deconstruct — the nine platforms that hold this little universe and its locomotives.
Maillar grew up on Staten Island in New York and recalled that he received electric trains as a Christmas gift. He played with them as a child over the Christmas-New Year's season. Then they went back into the boxes.
"We all had trains, but we didn't call them gardens," he said. "When I came down here, I discovered the Baltimore version."
That translates into scenic displays with detailed villages and water features that make a seasonal appearance. The "garden" designation is all about the display being home-constructed.
There's a tad of going overboard that comes with the title, too.
Maillar and his co.).-worker, Manfre, start their work in the summer. This year, in the best spirit of Christmas garden whimsy, they made a miniature swimming pool out of a paint tray.
There is no shortage of replicated local landmarks, including the National Brewing Co. on Dillon Street and the Patterson Park pagoda. There's a miniature memorial, on a grassy hillside, to Jackie Watts, the former editor of the East Baltimore Guide, who died late last year.
The garden panels, once stored in the former Epstein's department store building on Eastern Avenue, now are stored offseason in the former library of Our Lady of Pompei School on Conkling Street. The library shelves provide storage for all the buildings and train boxes.
To build a train garden in Highlandtown is ideal — the neighborhood is circled by working train yards and rights-of-way. The toy locomotives in the garden nicely represent Baltimore's own lines — Canton Railroad, which operates in the sprawling freight yards in Southeast Baltimore, and the old Baltimore & Ohio.
The M&M line — that's Maillar and Manfre — also includes a long Amtrak passenger train. A fine Pennsylvania Railroad steam locomotive also courses the oval.
I grew up with a homemade train garden tradition. In a house where my grandmother made her own soap and cured her own sauerkraut, there were also hundreds of Christmas cookies baked and stored in stoneware crocks in the cellar — not far from where the electric trains went into storage 11 months of the year.
Christmas gardens, as I grew up calling them, can have pleasant variations. About this time of the year, my uncle would take a flat spade and travel into Baltimore County. He'd find moss on a rock and scoop it up to help landscape the green sections of the garden.
My father, who grew up in today's Federal Hill, was a child of urban Baltimore. He would visit a cigar box factory, gather discarded sawdust and dye it green for grass. My mother was the train shopper. She scoured newspaper ads for two key words: "Lionel" and "reduced."
The Highlandtown display is in nearly the alphabetical center of the local train garden world — communities that still host public train gardens. The domain starts in Arbutus and continues to Wise Avenue, with stops in Ellicott City and the Sops at Kenilworth in Towson.
The Highlandtown garden is free and is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends at the engine house at 520 S. Conkling St. Beginning on Saturday, Dec. 19, it will be open daily (closed Christmas Day) through Jan. 3.