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All aboard for tradition of train gardens, including one at fire museum

The Fire Museum of Maryland is sharing space with an ambitious new development these days. It's as if someone had built a miniature town in the middle of the museum.

The Senator Theatre has taken up residence there. McDonald's has opened a restaurant and the Maryland Air and National Guard has a base there. Nearby, firefighters are battling a blaze at a Bill Kidd's Volvo dealership, but the local gas station, a farmhouse, the Thomas Viaduct, a saloon and a carnival with carousels and a Ferris wheel are safe and sound, as is the old Greyhound bus station on Howard Street, seemingly resurrected.

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The main mode of public transit are trains, three of them running simultaneously at ground level, plus a subway underneath.

The town has no name, but is known generically as the fire museum's holiday train garden, an annual tradition since the 1970s, according to museum officials and volunteers. On a recent Saturday, few of the crowds in Lutherville were there to see the museum. They were all in a back room, transfixed by the 24-foot-long, 11-foot-wide train garden with a painted backdrop of clouds and hills, and a blimp flying overhead with a banner saying, "Happy Holidays."

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Each visiting child had his or her own favorite.

"I like the Ferris wheel," said Maggie Pedone, 7, of Sparks.

"Everything," said her brother, Alex, 5. "Just everything."

The train garden at the fire museum, 1301 York Road, and other train gardens around the area, including one at The Shops of Kenilworth mall, another at the Jacksonville Senior Center and a huge one in Baltimore City's Fire Engine Co. 45 station in Mount Washington, are modern-day exemplars of the train gardens that German immigrants started in the early 1900s.

The holiday train garden is a Delmarva tradition, originally called a "putz" (pronounced pootz) and brought to the region by Moravian (Czech) immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and Baltimore. First placed under Christmas trees as a creche-like religious narrative to tell the story of the Nativity, it was later Americanized and secularized, first with wooden toy trains and then motorized ones.The earliest one in Baltimore on record, according to a plaque in the fire museum, started at Engine Co. No. 28 on Guilford Avenue, courtesy of Capt. Eugene Daly.

By the 1930s, many homes had their own train gardens, some built in windows so that passers-by could peek inside. Tom Colleran, 68, a retired firefighter in Dundalk and now a fire museum employee and tour guide, recalled that his parents had one in their house on Harford Road in the 1940s.

On the comeback track

Train gardens proliferated in the area until 1939, when city officials decided they were too time-consuming, frivolous and unsafe because visitors were impeding on station operations.

"The city fathers said, 'Oh, we can't have this,'" said retired Baltimore Sun editorial assistant Holton "Brownie" Browne, 73, of Govans, now a volunteer, a member of the board of directors and unofficial historian at the museum.

But they made a comeback two decades later, and the one at the Mount Washington station, 2700 Glen Ave., was one of several that debuted in the mid-1950. Mount Washington's started in 1955 and is now in its 59th year.

The Mount Washington train garden, which features everything from a train "cam" that shows live video on a flat screen TV to a scene drawn from the TV show, "Duck Dynasty," draws visitors from around Maryland and from out of state to the station, which played nonstop holiday songs during a recent visit. Many visitors sign the station's guest book and write comments such as "Great job as always," and "Thank you for protecting us."

They also comment on the scenes.

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"Love the Heartbreak Hotel," wrote Cindy Mueller, of Allegheny County.

Also popular is the train garden at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson, which features signs for store in the mall, like Jos. A Bank and Lax World, as well as trains, planes, balloons, carousels, a general store and a windmill, among other sights. There are also push-buttons along the display that make different parts of the train garden move.

"The kids love it and there's nothing (like it) in Perry Hall," said Kristin Campaigne, visiting the mall with her children, Jonathan, 6, and Maya, 4.

"There is a fire station in Jacksonville we go to," said Monica Rhoades, of Street, Md., who came to the mall with her father, George, and her toddlers, Luke and Cooper. "This is more interactive and it's on (the children's) level. It's more kid friendly."

Good public relations

The fire museum's train garden was revamped and modernized about four years ago and now is put together by Colleran and volunteers, John Palese (grandfather of the Pedone children) and John LaCosta, the latter hailed as a technical and electronics wizard, who literally makes the computer-programmed trains run on time. Last year, they installed the subway and this year the Maryland Air and National Guard base. They also got permission from Bill Kidd Volvo officials to put in on fire, after convincing them the name recognition would be worth it.

"We have more stuff on the (storage) shelves than we have in the train garden," said Palese, of Baldwin, a retired information security specialist, who used to build train sets in his basement in Richmond, Va., and has been a volunteer at the fire museum for about two years.

Browne considers holiday train gardens to be good public relations for fire departments, not just a whimsy for firefighters and the public.

"People get this image of firefighters as playing cards, checkers or chess and goofing off, or knocking down doors and rescuing people," Browne said. Building train gardens "shows that they're actually human."

It's not just children who love the train gardens, but big kids, too.

"It's absolutely tremendous," said Pat Plowman, of West Towson, who took her grandson, Zachary, 4, of Catonsville, on a tour of area train gardens, including the fire museum. Zachary soon was fixated on watching the subway train go around.

"He loves anything on wheels," his grandmother said. "In fact, we just came from Kenilworth."

"I've loved trains ever since I was a little kid," said Dylan Donahue, 17, of Bel Air, watching with his mother, Krystal Donahue, their nephews, Declan Cooper, 2 and Molly Cooper, 10, and the children's mother, Ellie Lyons, of Towson.

"I remember this one when I was younger," said Lyons. "It seemed like it took up the whole room."

"Everything is bigger when you're younger," said Donahue.

But she said, "I don't think you ever outgrow it. It's one of those things that's timeless."

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