There first thing visitors encounter when they enter the Glen Avenue firehouse is the old Carlin's Park roller coaster replica, rocking along with the assurance of a Swiss-made watch.
The Northwest Baltimore firehouse, which is home to Engine 45, Truck 27 and Medic 14, has been a cornerstone experience of the city's public Christmas garden season since the mid-1950s. And this is the final year for one of its most enthusiastic creators.
The station's five electric trains run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, including Christmas and New Year's Day. Even when the firefighters go out on calls, the trains keep going.
"I like to see movement," said David A. Joeckel, a city fire lieutenant who retired Oct. 28 and built sections of the garden. "I like to see something different every year, too."
Joeckel, 55, who has worked on the garden since 1990, says this will be his final effort. His fall retirement gave him extra time to work on the garden and build the new moving scenes of subjects including The Incredibles, Lassie and Shrek.
"There is something about this garden. It has an appeal. It is more homemade. There aren't the kits and the plastic houses," said Phil Roe, who took his sons Dale and Glen, and wife Yvonne, for a recent visit.
The miniature locomotive motors run so much that they usually have to be replaced several times during their annual season. The distance covered by the trains during the Christmas season would take them from Baltimore to Topeka, Kansas.
Christmas garden visitors return year after year. They enjoy the homemade quality of the garden - the villages, the trees, the diorama-like scenes, the little humorous touches the firefighters insert here and there. They also say it reminds them of an earlier, perhaps more innocent Baltimore, when the old department stores featured similar hand-wrought displays.
Now that he's completed his latest batch of moving scenes, Joeckel said he plans to move to Jasper, Ala., once his wife, Debra, gets a transfer to a federal job there.
The art of Christmas gardening, Baltimore-style, can only be learned from old masters, Joeckel said. He was taught how to animate by Tom Petty, a retired firefighter. The train locomotives are constantly repaired and remotored by Tim Cadwallader, who drives Truck 27. A fellow firefighter, Bill Webster, built Ladder 49 and cowboy scenes.
Joeckel's father would take him and his brother and sisters in the family's mid-1960s Ford Mustang Pony to see the garden at the Glen Avenue firehouse.
He also drew inspiration from the city's old department store windows, lively with animated displays tended by miniature, repetitively moving elves.
"Howard Street was fantastic," Joeckel said. "My mother took us on the bus down and life didn't get any better than that. You'd stand with your face pressed up against the window at Hochschild Kohn. That was a very special time in my life."
As a child growing up in Hampden, he threw stones at the slate roof of the old Pennsylvania Railroad station at Woodberry, but he confesses he was not a train enthusiast.
He was, however, an accomplished Dumpster diver, who rummaged through the refuse bins of the Life Like Corp., the Hampden company that still makes and sells the miniature trees and landscaping supplies for the Christmas garden hobbyist. He also rounded up cigar boxes from a West 36th Street tobacco shop that became the underpinnings for his mountains and valleys.
In the ninth grade at Robert Poole Junior High School, Joeckel made a miniature Hanging Garden of Babylon for a class project.
"I was a month late getting it done, but it was so good the principal put in on display in the lobby," he said.
As a kind of testament to where he's moving, he made a scene that includes a rural cabin, with several dogs, an outdoor clothesline, an outhouse, an automobile up on blocks, and an Elvis Presley look-alike drinking at a still.
"I like to put a little humor in," he said. "It goes with all this."
The garden is 40 feet by 12 feet and contains five operating trains. There's a central mountain this year, and the obligatory Ladder 49 fire scene. There's an amusement park, a snowy village (the snow is laundry detergent), and a drive-in restaurant inspired by the film American Graffiti. Along the way are cows (one got in the way of a train) and plenty of cartoon figures.
Joeckel's goal is to make children look at the little world he's built. He knows how hard it is to keep a child's interest. And he plays to that audience. "Kids want to see the little figurines they've played with all year moving on their own."
Joeckel likes to find 6-inch-high rubbery figures. This year he was delighted to locate a set based on The Incredibles, the Pixar-Disney film. He has miniatures of Elastigirl, Mr. Incredible, Violet and Dash.
"I like to animate the characters I find all year. I'll go to a dozen McDonalds in search of the Happy Meal figures I want, and then I'll make them move," he said.
He engages in a kind of plastic surgery, cutting off an arm and inserting a piece of piano wire. He then attaches the wire to a motor, in turn hidden under the garden's plywood base. The figures move, much to the delight of their visitors.
"This is the classic Christmas garden," said Lisa Stromberg, who came one recent early afternoon.
"Why don't you have Elvis in every scene?" asked her daughter, Grace, a Cathedral School student.
As a farewell to his 14 years at the firehouse, Joeckel inserted one last piece of humor, a set of figures holding a sign reminiscent of the classic Burma Shave advertisements:
"Jock worked here
Now he's gone
Hope this garden
Will carry on
- Fishin' in Alabama with Debi."