Christmas garden tradition stays right on track

December 23, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

People who are not versed in the peculiar ways of Baltimore sometimes think a Christmas garden has something to do with a Christmas cactus.

Guess again.

Baltimore's wonderful gardens that bloom only around Dec. 25 are really the miniature railway villages that fill local fire houses, basements and family rooms.

And there is no more traditional Baltimore Christmas aroma than the scent of a balsam fir intermixed with imitation smoke spewing from an O-gauge toy steam locomotive.

And what carol is as evocative as the din produced by the wheels and motors of three electric trains hurtling along a figure-eight of track?

It was Baltimore that coined the term Christmas garden. In other places, people have train layouts and train platforms that make appearances this time of the year. A family in Cumberland called its village setup a "tree yard."

Baltimore prefers garden, with all its associations of greenery, flower beds, ponds and pools in a carefully constructed setting. Just as some actual flower and vegetable gardeners spend the warm weather months in their plots, devoted Christmas gardeners devote hours running wires, building miniature airports and concrete waterfalls and arranging barn yards.

Christmas gardens invariably start small and expand. They soon envelope the living rooms or the basements of those who succumbed to their charms. Besides, if you are going to have a Christmas garden, you may as well do in it in a big way.

And, for those who have neither the time nor the inclination, there is always the neighborhood firehouse, where firefighters spent their off-hours making miniature playlands encircled by electric trains.

Certainly the best example of the firehouse garden tradition is at Cross Country Boulevard and Glen Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. The personnel at Engine 45, Truck 27 and Medic 14 opened their garden in early December. It remains open to the public until Jan. 2, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"As far as anyone can tell, the tradition here began about 1955 or 1956," said Firefighter Thomas Petty, one of a squad of about a dozen gardeners there.

The Cross Country firehouse has six operating train tracks. The rTC firefighters keep a roundhouse of 12 locomotives on hand.

The firefighters use local materials. Their miniature locomotives are made and sold by Williams Electric Trains in Columbia, a firm that enjoys a national reputation for its wares. The name Williams has yet to catch up to the toy train industry giant Lionel, but this local firm has many advocates.

Petty uses mainly miniature diesel engines, including those of the Pennsylvania Railroad, painted in the line's Tuscan red, that shade of deep, sooty maroon that was once synonymous with this one-time corporate rail giant. The Pennsy's real-life big red trains roared through Mount Washington (not far from the Cross Country firehouse) on what is today the Central Light Rail Line.

There are also New Havens, New York Centrals, Union Pacifics )) and an AMTRAK locomotive.

But any Christmas gardener knows you cannot be successful with trains alone. The garden aspect of the display must not be slighted. It is here that the creative forces come into play and make the miniature scenes that garden visitors remember from year to year.

Here the firefighters and medics are not at a loss. They have built a miniature Gettysburg battle scene; the car racing scene at Daytona Beach, Fla; a "Jurassic Park" look alike; and scenes from "Beauty and the Beast" and "Alladin."

"For the magic carpet, we use a 12 revolution-per-minute motor, piano wire and a castle. It works well," said Petty.

This garden features a lot of animation. There are 50 or 60 small motors powering a miniature population of auto drivers, city dwellers and, of course, firefighters. The fire company always includes a small-scale house that is on fire and a snow scene.

There are other Christmas gardens worth seeing.

There is a large display at the Kenilworth shopping center in Towson, the old B&O Railroad Station in Ellicott City, the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company in the 8500 block of Fort Smallwood Road in Pasadena and the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company in Dundalk near the Bear Creek Bridge.

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