The 10th anniversary edition of the Highlandtown train garden borrows from every strain of this revered tradition.
The layout is physically housed in an operating Baltimore City Fire Department station. There’s a snow scene, there’s a green scene, there’s a church in the village — each rendered with components that are true Baltimore.
And of course, as Terry Maillar, one of the founders of this Conkling Street institution, says: “Every garden has to have an amusement park.” This layout has a fine playland, accompanied by background calliope music.
This garden began in 2009 when some Highlandtown neighborhood volunteers received a $5,000 grant from the CSX Transportation railroad. Its popularity — and the enthusiasm of its volunteer corps — assured it would return.
It now has been granted a permanent berth in the firehouse. Only a wall separates the miniature trains and villages from the actual working emergency equipment.
"The first question the kids want to know when they come here is ‘Where is the dog? And there isn’t one." said Bo Schultz, a city firefighter assigned to Engine 41, at 520 S. Conkling Street.
While the fire house lacks a Dalmatian, it does include an electric train empire.
Maillar and the other builders and creators of this charming little world conceived this year’s offering as a multi-layered experience. There’s the obligatory snow scene and a nifty model of the Patterson Park greensward, including the essential pagoda and swimming pool.
Another section is a tribute to this neighborhood’s landmarks. A newly made model of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church — the real thing is just down the street — has illuminated stained glass windows.
DiPasquale’s Gough Street market makes an appearance, as does the old Haussner’s restaurant. There are also the Grand and Patterson movie houses and Hoehn’s bakery. Blocks of rowhouses come in plain brick as well as Formstone.
“I made the bus stop out of toothpicks," said Douglas Campbell, another volunteer, who supplied reproduction Baltimore Transit Co. buses and a Charles Chip delivery van.
"We don’t like to be the same, run-of-the-mill Christmas garden," Maillar said .
The Highlandtown Train Garden is now open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 9, then daily, Dec. 15 to Jan. 1. One exception: It’s closed Christmas Day, Dec. 25.
This Baltimore holiday garden tradition has deep roots. In 1936 — an era when Baltimore Sun reporters reported on these miniature displays in neighborhood fire houses — it was estimated that some 85,000 people came to watch trains circle little lakes and pass through mountains made of heavy paper, paint and wood scraps.
The Sun said in December 1899 that a Washington Boulevard display, in a private home but with times when the public was invited to stop by, featured "a beautiful country scene.” The newspaper reported that this handmade diorama included a farmhouse, orchard, green grass (aka dyed sawdust), pathways and a working fountain. And yes, there were live goldfish in a tin basin.
In 1899, electricity was new. Nevertheless, this display had a water mill whose wheel “turns industriously,” the paper said.
As electric toy trains became popular, families incorporated them into the holiday villages that spilled over living and dining rooms. One tradition was to harvest sheet moss from rocks, and build towns from the wood or tin of cigar boxes.
In 1902, Harry Buckley, who lived on Lakewood Avenue, copied the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Belt Line (the same railroad stretch that made news this week when a wall began to collapse at Calvert and 26th streets).
A display at a firehouse at Mount Royal and Guilford avenues — now an apartment complex — had a painted canvas background scavenged from a theater. The firefighters improvised engine fan belts to simulate highways where little automobiles were placed.
If the public holiday train garden is a Baltimore thing, the makers of the Highlandtown garden have discovered their visitors demand a miniature village with a strong local accent. They once reproduced a British import, and it proved a failure.
“We tried doing a Thomas the Tank Engine theme,” Maillar said. “It did not go over here.”