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Christmas train gardens whistle and chug all over Harford

Zan Wills, 15, designed a train garden now on display at Hickory Hill Farm in Street.
Zan Wills, 15, designed a train garden now on display at Hickory Hill Farm in Street.(Courtesy of Denee Daly / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Visiting train gardens for Christmas is a beloved Baltimore-area tradition, and people around Harford County once again have several public displays to choose from this holiday season.

This weekend, the last weekend before Christmas, will also be the last chance for people to see some of them; others will remain open for a few days after the holiday.

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One relative newcomer to the Harford train garden scene is the Hickory Hill Train Garden, on Hickory Hill Farm in Street.

The display, at 3123 Copenhaver Road, was first erected last year by 15-year-old Zan Wills, who was looking for a place to display his love for model trains.

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Last year, Zan, who lives up the road from Hickory Hill, used the train garden to raise about $700 for local food banks, his father, Glen Wills, explained.

"He wants to share his blessings and fortunes with others, which is pretty good for what would have been a 13-year-old kid at the time," Glen Wills said.

Zan Wills has been interested in trains since he was very young, starting with getting an electric train set and getting into the Thomas the Tank Engine series, his father said.

He was able to finally get an 8-foot-by-12-foot table at Hickory Hill Farm after talking about it on Christmas two years ago.

"We have been going there for years to get pretty big trees and it changed ownership about five years ago," Glen Wills said.

When the farm reopened, Zan Wills began setting up his layout, getting some carpentry help from his grandfather and parents.

This season, he completely demolished last year's set-up and made an even bigger display, with three tiers and three tracks instead of just two.

"It's still a really great winter hobby for me," Zan Wills said, noting he was especially inspired by the Wise Avenue train garden in Dundalk.

He explained the set-up would normally take six months to build, but between school and soccer practice, he only had six weeks.

"I am very happy with the way it turned out," he said. "I really just enjoy building it, I enjoy running it and seeing the looks on the little kids as they come in. It's really neat to see them with all the trains."

"I am definitely going to keep doing this as long as I can," he said, adding he hopes to get different buildings, different engines and maybe change the track layout next year.

Glen Wills said he is proud of what his son has accomplished.

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"He has collected trains since he was 3 and it's just kind of grown into a neat thing," Glen Wills said. "He just delves into it and we have been very supportive of him."

"Most people are very impressed that he's done it," he added. "He is a very cordial young man and the feedback is always that he's done a great job and how neat it is."

The display is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Another train garden is once again honoring a local family in the Bel Air area.

The Cooper family is hosting Christopher's Train Garden at Broom's Bloom Dairy off of Route 543, in honor of their son, who died in 2007.

"They do the entire thing; I just let them use my space," Kate Dallam, of Broom's Bloom, explained.

The display runs from noon to 8 p.m. until the Sunday after Christmas, but is closed on Tuesday.

Dallam said the exhibit, which features colorful, miniature renderings of scenes throughout Maryland, including Bel Air's Main Street and Ocean City's Boardwalk, has received a big response.

"The community loves it," she said. "It is very geared toward young children, very young."

Dallam said she wants to build a permanent building for the train garden next year, possibly using the space for artistic displays when the garden is not up and running.

The Coopers add to it every year, she said, trying to reflect local businesses like Main Street Oyster House.

"It adds a tremendous amount to the store and the community just embraces it," she said. "I have little children who come every night before they go to bed."

"Young children come up to me in July and ask when the train garden will be back," Dallam added.

Primarily among boys under the age of nine or 10, "it is actually a phenomenon with them," Dallam said.

The Coopers have a donation box to collect money to help fund the display.

In Jarrettsville, a much older train garden is back once again.

The 33rd annual, free train garden is back at Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company.

The display continues Friday through Dec. 23, before returning after Christmas and running through Jan. 11.

Information on hours is available at http://www.jarrettsvillevfc.com.

The train garden originally began as a way to keep adults entertained during a "Santa's workshop" gift store at the fire hall, John Simpson, of the fire company, said.

The display now has five layouts – two in snow and three fall ones – and "we have everything from Z-scale all the way to G-scale" designs, Simpson said.

"It just began to grow more and more popular," Simpson said. "The popularity has changed. It's big kids, little kids."

The display also features a scavenger hunt, and the fire company sells raffle tickets for eight train sets. Four are given away before Christmas Eve and four more on the last night of the exhibit.

"Everybody comes and enjoys it," he said.

The exhibit is run completely by donations, not operating expenses from the fire company, Simpson noted.

"We constantly try to add and change stuff up," he said. "I have a committee that work with me on it."

The Mason Dixon Large Scale Railroad Society is again set up in store space at Bel Air Town Center, near Liberatore's, off Route 1.

The display will be running Friday through Sunday and from Dec. 26 through Dec. 30. More information, including operating times, is available at http://www.mdlsrs.com.

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