Right after Veterans Day, volunteers at the Dundalk- Patapsco Neck Historical Society Museum drag out the ladder and lower dozens of boxes stowed in a hard-to-reach attic. Then they get to work building a train garden, piece by piece, that includes some 10,000 tiny trees, houses, figures and, of course, locomotives, cars and cabooses.
It takes about three weeks to set up the elaborate scenes, many of which are animated, in what are probably the smallest quarters in the area for such a display.
This marks the 11th year for the museum's annual train garden at Center Place, just across from Dundalk Village Shopping Center. The small museum with the long name expects to draw more than 5,000 visitors from the neighborhood, the metropolitan area and many states across the country.
The intricate display, with multiple moving parts and numerous model trains, began with the efforts of Michael Andy, who placed a few plastic houses and one battery-operated model train atop a card table for the first garden. It has grown bigger and livelier every year and now fills about 350 square feet, all but a corner office in the one-story brick building.
The volunteers can't move the stationary museum pieces and display cases, so they disguise them.
"We have no storage off-site," said Andy. "We have to work around everything."
Instead of plywood platforms atop sturdy wood frames, volunteers use all those storage cartons for the base of their garden. It's more practical and just as stable.
"There is no other place for the boxes," said Harry Young, a museum volunteer who becomes the greeter for the six or so weeks the train garden is open.
The prep work is precise and time-consuming, taking up most evenings and weekends.
"We don't start with a large empty hall," Andy said. "We have limited space, irregular wall patterns and lots of bulky items we can't move. We have many challenges, but we work around them. We improvise."
That is how brick cardboard turns a display case into a wall and thick, white cotton transforms the floor-to-ceiling air conditioner into a snow-covered mountain, where bobsledders will spiral downhill.
"We don't call it cotton," said Allan Northington, working with his 16-year-old son Robert. "For us, it's snow."
The younger Northington is undaunted by the challenges. "I grew up watching my father put up train gardens every year," he said. "This one is just bigger."
The workers cover the interior walls in dark blue plastic, add a few stars and then night descends on the twinkling villages that the trains encircle. Santa, with his elves and reindeer, is ubiquitous throughout the display, but most noticeable in a large, wooden plane atop the air-conditioner mountain.
Among the local landmarks are a Krispy Kreme shop, the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Baltimore Greyhound Station, the Rialto Theatre, a pagoda like the one in Patterson Park and a lighthouse. There's whimsy, like an Avon bottle fountain, and many moving parts, including skaters gliding on a glistening pond.
"You will see 100 animations this year among thousands of pieces," Andy said.
David Crews, a Dundalk resident, said he checks out the display every year with his nephews.
"I like all the authentic Dundalk stuff," he said.
Andy, a native of Pittsburgh, where train displays are a rarity, knew nothing of the craft when he moved to Maryland. He was captivated by a tradition he called unique to this area and popularized originally by fire stations. Young has spent much of his 82 years in Dundalk and can't recall any holiday without model trains whirring around gardens.
"Years ago, this activity was a huge competition between fire halls," Young said. "Dundalk has always had train gardens. Parents would take their kids to see these things every year. It was a family tradition that many people here remember."
Volunteers comb the Internet hoping to find a historic model at a bargain price. Even on a limited budget, they still add a few new pieces every year and receive donated items, often from neighbors' attics.
Steve Ellis, the mechanic of the group, puts up a train garden at his home nearby, but said, "This one is just awesome fun."
On a recent evening, he busied himself with replicating a winter wonderland with cotton, strings of tiny lights and a staple gun. When the angels stopped spinning around a large metal star — once a tree topper — the repair job fell to him. He had the cherubs rotating in no time.
Young loves to watch the children's faces when they enter the museum.
"Many are so excited that they knock down our picket fence on their way to the trains," he said. "I like to let them push the buttons and make the train noises. They love the stuff that moves."
Andy agreed. "It's a tradition that won't die even in all of today's high-tech razzle-dazzle," he said.
The garden is open from noon to 8 p.m. daily starting Saturday, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at 4 Center Place. Admission is free. Information: 410-284-2331.