Holiday train gardens reflect heritage, tradition

The Hardester family had the train garden all to themselves on a recent rainy Tuesday night at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

One-year-old Zander was waving and yelling as the miniature trains passed, as 4-year-old Grayson stood still across the way, wide-eyed, his mouth agape.


Angela, their mother watched the children while their dad, Ed, snapped photos.

"Their faces light up," he said. "It goes hand-in-hand with the Christmas season."


Ed, 29, and Angela, 32, grew up in Arbutus and saw the train garden at the firehouse when they were younger. They've been going back every year since Grayson was born.

The train garden is a tradition nearly a quarter century old in Arbutus and draws about 8,000 people each season.

The holiday displays have been a mainstay in the Baltimore area for generations, a tradition dating to the late 1800s, when German immigrants would set up scenes as they had done in Europe, said Connie Atkinson, who with her husband Chuck has been staging the Arbutus display for more than two decades.

"The term Christmas garden is local to this area, but once you go even as far as Washington, D.C., they don't understand what it is," she said.

Travis Harry, director of museum operations for the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, said the immigrants would place their model trains around their Christmas trees. In the 1930s and into the 1950s, the B&O Railroad would have model train layouts on display at stations or cities along its routes, he said.

With Baltimore's railroad roots, people wanted to have the models in their homes and train gardens grew in popularity, Harry said. Now, he said, adults want to share that childhood memory with their children and grandchildren.

As a historical icon, the Catonsville Historical Society keeps a train garden on exhibit all year.

The Atkinsons have led a team of volunteers assembling the display since 1993.


That year, the fire department asked Chuck to put together a garden as a way to bring more people to its annual pancake breakfast. It took weeks for him to craft the 8-foot by 24-foot garden in the basement of the hobby shop his family owned. The garden was on display for just one day.

The following year, he agreed to set up a garden if it was in place longer.

The group of volunteers — six this year — gets access to the room in the basement of the firehouse Aug. 1, in the heat of summer. This year, they labored until Nov. 19 — the day before its opening — losing count of how much track was laid and how many buildings were placed.

After his job stocking shelves at Walmart each day, Chuck Atkinson, 63, went to work on the garden, which he finds relaxing.

It typically costs between $1,500 and $2,000 to build the intricate displays each year, depending on what materials are needed, Chuck Atkinson said. Donations cover most of the costs.

Each year the theme and floor plan changes. This year's garden has 6-foot by 24-foot section in the middle of the room and an L-shaped section with parts measuring 5-feet by 24-feet and 6-feet by 12-feet. There are nine trains of differing sizes.


"We try to make it as dramatic a change as possible so when people walk in the door they say it's different," Connie Atkinson said. "It will never look like this again."

Themes are decided as far as two years ahead of time, to make sure the Atkinsons and their fellow volunteers can secure everything they need to make the scenes.

The group built train gardens at the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis for three years under Martin O'Malley and four years under Robert Ehrlich, an Arbutus native.

This year's theme recognizes the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Arlington, Va. Every miniature building, from a home to a bird house, has an American flag on it.

In the center exhibit, an additional 403 miniature American flags are placed in a snowy scene, one for each of the first responders who died that day.

On the wall is a donated flag that flew over Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked planes crashed. When the train garden closes, the flag will be displayed in the firehouse.


In another area, there is a group of motorcycles, representing an annual ride organized by America's 9/11 Foundation founder Ted Sjurseth that goes from Shanksville to the Pentagon and Ground Zero in Manhattan. The ride has raised awareness and more than $800,000 in scholarships and donations for first responders.

"We felt like we needed to make a statement to remind people that this happened and not make it morbid, but to give everyone a reminder that this is our history," Connie Atkinson said.

Other areas are designed like neighborhoods or traditional landmarks. A figure-eight track separates a zoo from a neighborhood. The train that runs on that track is long enough so when it loops through the track, it looks like the front narrowly misses hitting the back, as its horn blares.

Delores Gutberlet, 71, a longtime volunteer, designed a fall scene.

"I like to sit in the back and watch the faces of the children when they come in," she said. "It's worthwhile."

The train garden is more than just a way to channel back-to-childhood nostalgia, Connie Atkinson said. It also serves as a way to promote the fire department as part of the community. If children want to see fire equipment while visiting the train garden, all they have to do is ask, she said.


"We want the children to know that firemen aren't scary, that they're important," she said. "It's good for them to meet firemen and to see that they're just like you and me."

The Arbutus train garden is open to the public through Jan. 2. An appearance from Santa Claus is expected Dec. 19. When the train garden is closed to the public, it is open for private tours.

Once the season ends, it typically takes about two months to disassemble the displays, Connie Atkinson said.

In Catonsville, the Historical Society is home to a train garden that stays up all year and is shown during some of the nonprofit's events, according to Joan Bender, a board member and past president.

For the past few months, the garden was out of commission, as parts were damaged in the July 30 storm that flooded Ellicott City and parts of Catonsville.

A trio of volunteers — Gerry Stewart, Ben Landrum and Deborah Greenley — spent about a month refurbishing the area to prepare it for an open house scheduled for Dec. 5.


The historical society received most of the current train garden from the Catonsville Fire Department in 1975, with some train cars dating as far back as the 1950s and some scenery dating back to the 1920s. Landrum and Stewart have supplemented the display with some trains and parts from their own collections.

"It's like being a kid again on Christmas Day, that's what this reminds me of," Landrum said. "It's just a joy. The people that have the bug, we just love it."

The garden has four trains and two trolleys in its setup, a U-shaped display that has two 4-foot by 20-foot sections and a 4-foot by 15-foot section, mounted at a child's eye level.

"We have adults and children who spend hours watching the trains go round," Bender said. "They're fascinated by it."

Steve Knight, the 57-year-old grandfather of the Hardester boys, joined the family at the Arbutus train garden.

"It takes a lot of time to do stuff like this to put together and that's what you appreciate," he said. "Every little detail is so cool, so as old as I am, I love it."


"It's wonderful to see the children come through," Connie Atkinson said. "Sometimes the children are very old, like 80s or something like that, but they see things they remember from their childhood."


Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department Train Garden

When: 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. on weeknights and 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. on weekends through Jan. 2; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve; Closed on Christmas Day

Where: Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, 5200 Southwestern Blvd.

Cost: Free, donations accepted.