Holiday train setup carries cheer, childhood memories

November 22, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Gilbert S. "Si" Benson wasn't an unusual youngster, except that he couldn't wait for Christmas to end.

It was then that he could get what he really wanted.

His father would take him to the "bargain department" of the old Montgomery Ward building on Monroe Street in Baltimore, he said, where "for $10 I got boxes of trains that were not sold or slightly damaged. I could get a whole train for 35 cents."

Now, at 69, he has most of those early trains -- and hundreds more -- and can't wait for the Christmas season to come. That's when he and three colleagues from the Wednesday Night Train Club set up the train garden of their dreams, with someone else's money, at the Kenilworth Park Mall in Towson.

For years the mall's Christmas train layouts had been routine, but last year management wanted something special. They turned to veteran hobbyists who know model railroading inside and out, said Louis S. Sachs, president of Towne Metropolitan, the mall management firm.

And it worked.

"This was not just trains, there was the animation. It's more than a typical Christmas event, and it was for adults as well as kids," Mr. Sachs said. "I would stand there and look, and every time I saw something new. You could go back every day and see something you didn't see before. It brought in a lot of people."

The display opened the day after Thanksgiving and continued through the Christmas season, as it will again this year.

"The kids called us 'bad guys' when we came to take it down after New Year's," said Mr. Benson, a civil engineer and landscape architect who retired in 1986 as chief of Baltimore County's Bureau of Public Services.

The 36-foot-long layout around the mall fountain will be one of the largest public Christmas gardens in the area.

"We're going to try to make it different and better from last year so people will come back more than once," said William Gough, 47, of Perry Hall, a Baltimore County public works engineer who is the "coordinator" and drew the blueprint for the layout.

Last year, Mr. Benson said, bus loads of students and handicapped people visited the Christmas garden.

"It was unbelievable how much they enjoyed it," he said. "We're encouraging the mall to buy even more equipment so it will continue to grow."

The mall is planning a series of Christmas programs, "but the centerpiece will be the trains. They take

this very seriously," said the mall manager, Joan McCarty Wilhelm.

The display is about 2 feet off the floor and encircled by a plastic shield to allow children an eye-level view but protect the layout from curious fingers.

"We sat there for hours and watched hundreds of little kids press their noses against the Plexiglas to watch. There were a lot of ice cream smears, too," Mr. Benson said, recalling last year's train garden.

There were a few incidents when viewers dropped coins from the floor above, aiming for the fountain but instead hitting the railroad tracks and short-circuiting the electrical system, Mr. Gough said.

Once, he said, someone dropped a penny that rolled inside a tunnel, lodged in the tracks and shorted out the system. It took a long time before Mr. Benson found the coin.

Another time someone reached over, knocked a train off the tracks and left. The electric motor burned out.

Mr. Gough said it takes three weeks to set up. The four friends divided up the major tasks, although there is much overlapping.

Mr. Benson was generally in charge of more than a score of animations. Larry Backus of Carney handled the scenery and background, and Don Wernz of Glendale did the intricate electrical wiring and connections that make the whole thing go.

They pooled their experience to install the three train lines -- passenger, freight and commuter -- that run through the different areas of the layout: a residential community, a rural area, a business district and the inevitable snow scene.

The fascination with special effects in movies carries into miniature worlds like the Christmas garden, Mr. Benson said.

"That's why every scene has animations, moving figures of men sawing logs, snow plows pushing snow, skaters skating, playground swings, seesaws and turntables all operating, Santa Claus going up and down a chimney, anything we can do," he said.

Some of the animations are purchased commercially while others are homemade.

What gets grown men so wrapped up in such a project?

Mr. Gough said his interest started when his father built a train garden in 1939 -- still used each Christmas -- and remained so strong that in 1982 he became serious collector.

A plaque in the train room of Mr. Benson's Pleasant Grove home says, "The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys." He concurs.

Like most model train buffs it began with childhood toys and developed into a lifelong fascination with railroading. As the hobby mushroomed, particularly in the last decade, prices have followed suit, Mr. Benson said.

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