On Dec. 28, 1958, while the Colts-Giants game played on the basement television, my father and I watched as our Lionel train set circled a miniature landscape made of lichen trees, grass sawdust fields and speckled paper mountains.
The little maple trees and lawns were made by a local company, Life-Like Products, housed in a sprawling Union Avenue stone mill. A few months ago, as the city's Preservation Commission voted to place this building, the Druid Mill, on its landmark list, I met Jay Kramer, who told me of how his father and uncle established a company that put the green in Christmas gardens.
Life-Like Products was the creation of two brothers, Lou and Sol Kramer, who got their start in the late 1930s. As teenagers, they made model airplanes from light-weight wood they salvaged from discarded banana crates found at the old United Fruit pier along Pratt Street, not far from today's Harborplace. Young businessmen (they started the business with $40 they borrowed from their mother), they named their enterprise Burd model airplanes. They later had a Park Avenue shop called the Modelers.
During World War II, Lou Kramer was a wing assembler at the Martin Co. in Middle River and Sol served in the Marines. After the end of hostilities, they set up Wholesale Hobby Distribution Co. and Kramer Brothers Hobbies. They sold model cars and fishing tackle, and they entered the Christmas garden supply business through their Life-Like line, which produced artificial grass, trees and mountains for trains. The hobby business boomed in the 1950s, and the Kramer brothers made the best of it.
"We dyed sawdust for imitation grass and dried it on the roof of a building we owned on Barre Street," said Jay Kramer, whose father, Lou Kramer, died in 2003. "The lichen came from Norway."
After a fire destroyed the Barre Street building, the Kramers rented one floor at 1600 Union Ave. and later bought the stone structure. They employed many people from Hampden to make the little trees and grass mats. Numerous members of Baltimore's Lumbee Indian community also worked at the factory, which the Kramers ran until selling the business in 2000.
"It was a family business, and there was a great deal of loyalty," Jay Kramer said.
The Kramers, who attended national sales conventions and knew the hobby industry from top to bottom, developed a friendship with plastic model manufacturer Lou Glaser. They became silent partners in his Revell model kits, a business based in Venice, Calif. The Kramers suggested that Glaser bring out the battleship Missouri in miniature. It proved to be a huge seller in the 1950s.
In the mid-1960s, the Kramers bought Varney model trains. They later had their train sets made in Asia.
They also had another product, a great success and a prime example of the law of unintended consequences.
"The ice chest business was started in the Union Avenue building," said Jay Kramer. "The story goes that originally Life-Like Toy Train Tunnels were made from papier-mache by a vendor in Pennsylvania who was difficult to work with. The company heard of a new process that was developed in Germany by BASF to mold expanded polystyrene (EPS) into shapes that could be decorated. A company member went to Germany, studied the process and brought it back.
"As the story goes, mold machine operators used to keep their lunches in the tunnels (turned upside down) to keep them warm or cold depending on the season.
"And so, the 'Styrofoam' ice chest was born."