An idea that originated on a blazing hot day in July at the Jacksonville Senior Center has turned into one of the coolest projects the seniors have ever attempted.
A core group of a dozen men and women have created a Christmas train garden. But not an ordinary one. Theirs features Jacksonville in miniature. It will be open to the public four days this month.
The train garden has exact replicas of the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire Company, Jacksonville Veterinary Hospital, Chestnut Grove Presbyterian Church and, of course, the Jacksonville Senior Center.
Visitors will recognize Safeway, Strapasta and Bagelmeister, too. They'll watch a golfer sink a putt at Hillendale Country Club and see the sky over Jacksonville Elementary School light up with fiber optic Fourth of July fireworks. There is even a 4-foot-tall red-and-white cell tower.
"I thought about doing a train garden here and started looking for volunteers to help. We had our first meeting this summer," said Rick Frattali, a senior center member whose elaborate home train garden graced the North County News cover in 2005. "Some people who signed up had never made a model before, but we had some with experience, too. Everybody found a way to contribute their own skill."
He held regular meetings at the center to make sure everybody was on track, but most people did their work at home.
Angie Creswell painted seven panels that provide the backdrop to the 5- by 12-foot train garden. They include scenes of Carroll Manor and Jacksonville elementary schools, Boordy Vineyards and Loch Raven dam.
"My father and grandfather both worked for the Ma & Pa Railroad, so I was brought up knowing about trains," she said. "I'm a would-be artist, so this has been fun to work on."
Betsy Lehmann and Jim Farrelly each made big and small, fat and skinny trees out of moss and twigs.
"I decided to become a tree expert," Farrelly said. "I made about 50 and it's been fun. My wife didn't see much of me. I told her I got lost in the forest."
Donna Minkiewicz said she almost went cross-eyed as she hand-painted her "little people." She took 35 solid-colored, one-inch tall men, women and children and individualized them before placing them throughout Jacksonville.
"One lady is carrying a basket, so I painted her clothes red, white and blue because she's going to have a picnic at the fireworks," she said.
She also transformed a plain skirt into a plaid one, and added black lines to the pages of an open book in a girl's lap.
But not everybody is a novice. Mike Pfeifer has a full train garden in the basement of his Phoenix home. He has his own model-making workshop where he created the Glen Arm train station, veterinarian's office and Chestnut Grove Church.
He decided to light up the church to show off stained glass windows he made out of paint and waxed paper.
"I'm what's called a rivet-counter, somebody who likes everything perfect, but that can get me into trouble," he said, noting he spent too much money at a model train store for a wrought iron fence to surrounding the veterinarian's office replica he made.
"It would have taken me forever to do it toothpick by toothpick," he said. "The fence matches what's there perfectly."
He even covered a block of wood with stone-patterned paper to replicate a stone wall next to the building.
Pfeifer shared his knowledge with Dennis Hoover who had never made a model before. After some instruction in Pfeiffer's basement, Hoover created the fire station and the cell tower.
He took pictures of both from all angles, then went home and figured out how to recreate them.
"This has been such a great way for everybody to showcase their talents and their hobbies," said Barbara Franke, senior center director. "This has gotten everybody in the building energized."
Joe Pistritto made 22 feet of miniature country fencing that will go along the edge of the train garden to keep little hands from reaching in.
He also took a basic ceramic house and upgraded it. He painted curtains in the windows, added a double chimney and garage, and surrounded it with bushes he made from plaster of Paris.
In addition to the train garden, which features Fratalli's locomotive and five cars, a snowy village scene, complete with skiers and ice skaters and a trolley that runs back and forth, has been set up in the corner of the room.
Jennifer Wagner owns 100 locomotives and will bring in an assortment to be put on display.
"This has been a lot of work, but it's been a lot of fun, too," Frattali said. "We already know things we want to make for next year's garden. It looks like we've started a Christmas tradition."
Many of the train garden's architects will be on hand when it is open to the public. They plan on wearing engineer's caps, conductor's hats and Christmas finery.
Dennis Hoover will get people in the mood with a CD he made of 50 railroad songs, including Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo," Woody Guthrie's "Little Black Train" and "Casey Jones" by Eddie Arnold.
The "Jacksonville in Miniature" train garden will be open on Dec. 18, 19 and 27 from noon to 3 p.m. Santa Claus will be on hand to talk with kids on Dec. 18. On Dec. 29, magician Mike Rose will entertain folks of all ages at 11 a.m. The train garden will be open on Dec. 29 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and again from 6 to 8 p.m.
The train garden is free, but donations will be accepted to help purchase materials for next year's display.
The Jacksonville Senior Center is located at 3605 Sweet Air Road, in Jacksonville. For more information, call 410-887-8208.