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Dave Balthis, left, a retired Howard County firefighter, has engineered the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department's annual train garden for the past 22 years. He and many volunteers are putting together this year's display.
Dave Balthis, left, a retired Howard County firefighter, has engineered the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department's annual train garden for the past 22 years. He and many volunteers are putting together this year's display. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes the inner child to raise this village. Ask the men and women who toil each year to create the holiday train garden at the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department. The seven-week project is dear to the hearts of the 22 volunteers armed with saws, drills and spray paint who sculpt a wondrous winter landscape with eight chugging trains, that attracts an estimated 15,000 visitors each holiday season.

The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department.
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Improvisation triggers each setup, said Dave Balthis, of Ellicott City, who has managed the garden from its inception 22 years ago.

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“At first, we work by the seat of our pants — then we turn our ideas into drawings,” he said.

On Saturdays, the lines may snake out of the firehouse as folks queue up to see the two-tiered display, open Wednesday through Friday (6:30-8:30 p.m.) and weekends (11:30 a.m.-8:30) through Jan. 1, and closed Christmas Day. It’s not like they’ve seen it before; each year’s layout is different. This season, it’s part Dickens, part DC Comics. Over here is a figure of Superman, strung by wire, circling the Daily Planet. Over there is the Batmobile roaring out of the Bat Cave.

A retired firefighter, Balthis, 60, enjoys the rapt expressions of visitors, young and old, as they take in the scenes in every nook and cranny on the 26-by-10-foot platform. It’s the same spellbound look he had as a kid, watching his two Lionel tinplate O gauge trains circle a snug 4-by-8-foot platform in the basement of his family’s home.

Keith Levasseur and his son, Noah, get a satisfying glimpse of the variety of trains circling the room as the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department.
Keith Levasseur and his son, Noah, get a satisfying glimpse of the variety of trains circling the room as the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“My dad, an electrical engineer, put the trains up the day after Thanksgiving — which meant Christmas was coming — and showed me how to oil and tend them,” Balthis said. “They were my grandfather’s trains, from the 1930s, but I still got to play with them.

"As a kid, I grew up watching ‘The Addams Family’ on TV, where they crashed their [toy] trains into each other, but I didn’t do that. I’ve still got a sales receipt for one of the train sets which cost $23 — about a week’s salary back then.”

He still has those engines, now 90 years old, squirreled away at home. But there’s no time to display them, given his work on the firehouse layout, which he began in 1998.

“I took on the work because I like trains and knew it could draw a lot of people into the building to learn fire safety and education,” Balthis said. “The garden is a way to tie the community and the fire department together, to build relationships and to show that we’re not just here for emergencies.”

How does he corral his staff of volunteers?

“When visitors see the garden and ask, ‘How do you do that?’ I say, ‘I’m not going to tell you, but if you come in and help, I’ll show you.' ”

The work agrees with Peter Hammond, 59, of Halethorpe who, with his wife, Sharon, has helped with the garden from the start.

“I’ve always been a little kid, and that will never change,” he said.

For Dave Claus, 61, an electrical engineer from Ellicott City, the job keeps him on his toes.

“Mrs. Claus said I wasn’t busy enough, so she got me involved in this,” he said. “I’m glad she did.”

It’s the moving parts of the garden that catch one’s eye: two children making snow angels on the ground, a porcelain girl flying a kite, a hockey player poised to shoot as a goalie guards the net on a frozen pond.

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“The key is trying to shove as much stuff into as tiny a space as you can,” Balthis said .

There are Santas to spare. One starts to climb a ladder, changes his mind (aren’t chimneys his forte?) and backs down. A more traditional Santa flies high over the village in his sleigh, while a third — on a break, perhaps — lolls with his reindeer in a rumbling flatcar.

The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department.
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue holds their Annual Train Garden and Open House at the Ellicott City Fire Department. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

There’s a nod to Baltimore, as well: overlooking the town is a replica of the iconic Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, topped with a signature baby-blue bottle.

Hands-on scenes are a favorite. Push a button beside the scale model of the Ellicott City Fire Department and a fireman slides down a pole, a bay door opens and the engine races off. Push it again and the truck backs into the station, awaiting the next set of eager fingers.

Volunteers — mostly folks who live nearby — put their own spin on things. Last year Steve Fort, who is Jewish, contributed a miniature menorah.

“People liked it, so this year I made a wooden temple,” the 69-year-old Reisterstown resident said.

But it’s the trains that drive the show, eight of them hurtling round and round on different tracks, some with as many as 40 cars attached.

“Sometimes it looks like the engine is going to hit its own the caboose,” Balthis said. “Some people watch them for half an hour. Autistic kids love the trains; children chase them around the platform, trying to count cars. Or they’ll stand at the end of the table and dare a train to turn right in front of them.”

Wrecks do happen. Cars get detached and are thrown onto parallel tracks. Or a hand will reach over the 14-inch Plexiglass sheet that surrounds the garden and try to scoop up one of the engines — some of which cost $1,000 — using the plastic fireman’s hat that each child receives on arrival.

“Kids will be kids,” Balthis said.

Exhibits have misfired in yules of yore. Waterfalls are out, Balthis said: “They are fascinating when they work, but most times they leak where they shouldn’t. Another time, we put telephone poles in the city and threaded them to make the wires. It was neat to look at until a crane came along on a train, hooked the thread and pulled down all of the poles."

Designing a train garden from scratch “is a daunting task and requires a lot of family sacrifices this time of year,” he said. "Every season we tell ourselves, ‘This will probably be the last one.’ "

There are evenings, however, when overhead lights are doused, leaving only those twinkling from the trains and tiny homes in the garden.

”You feel like you’re looking down on a city from a plane, and people go ‘Oooooh,’ " Balthis said. “It’s stunning.”

And he thinks, maybe one more year.

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