Trains run through John Sturgeon's display and through his fondest Christmas memories

Garden of holiday delights

December 19, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

John Sturgeon weathered strong winds and icy temperatures to blow up his holiday balloon decorations and turn on the lights in the front and backyard of his Pasadena home.

One by one, the 60-year-old blew up snowmen, Santa Claus on a train and on a motorcycle, a toy soldier, and a large carousel that contained horses that moved around a huge snow globe, a Christmas tree, and penguins.

"When people visit, I want them to get the full effect from the time they walk up the driveway," said Sturgeon, a retired Baltimore City police sergeant. "And when they enter the building in the back, I want them to already have smiles on their faces."

Sturgeon was gearing up for a train garden that he opened to the public about 10 years ago. Complete with the outdoor holiday decorations, the train garden has become a tradition for hundreds of families who visit the elaborate set-up that includes 11 tracks, more than 600 snowmen, dozens of buildings and summer and winter settings.

The idea to create the garden was born with Sturgeon. He received his first train set from his father at birth, he said. Then each year thereafter, his father set up a train garden for Sturgeon and his four siblings. Sturgeon decided to continue the tradition.

Using trains from his collection that includes hundreds of engines, and more than 100 train sets, he sets up a train garden, now called train pikes by train aficionados, he said.

When the Sturgeons first moved into their Pasadena home in 1986, he set up his electric trains in the basement of the house, he said. When his wife decided the next year that she wanted to finish the basement, he put the trains away.

But in 1992, he constructed a 24-by-32-foot building behind his house and pulled the trains back out. For five years, he worked on the train garden, said Sturgeon, who retired in 2003. He opened it to family and friends in 1995, and then to the public about 1997.

You enter the building through a door with a Christmas tree etched into the glass, and a sign behind it that says "For Trainmen Only." Children are greeted by Santa Claus, played by Sturgeon, who also operates the trains from a tall booth built high off the main floor to keep little fingers away from the controls, he said. The experience is free and includes a look at the train garden, a chance to sit on Santa's lap, a candy cane and a coloring book.

The train garden is divided into two sections - a summer scene and a winter one. The summer scene is 11 feet wide and 16 feet long.

An 8.5-foot tall Christmas tree with 2,500 multicolored lights sits on a podium above the tracks in a back corner.

Four trains run on the tracks, and one runs over the Christmas tree. The scene contains antique buildings, several of which belonged to his father, and includes houses with Christmas lights, firehouses, police stations, and a school.

The summer scene includes an amusement park, he said. It contains single and double Ferris wheels, a carousel, a roller coaster, bumper cars and a hot dog stand.

Next to the amusement park is an area with hobos around a bonfire, and a graveyard.

"I think that graveyard is where I'll be buried, if I buy one more train," he quipped as he pointed at the graveyard. "See, there's a fresh grave back there."

Grant Soth stood mesmerized, looking at the Ferris wheels and the people on the ground around them.

"I think it's so neat how he made the people look like they are real, even though they are so small," said Soth, 12, of Middle River. "It looks like a real town. It makes me want a train."

The winter scene is 32 feet long and 12 feet wide and contains five railroad tracks. It is decorated with more than 600 snowmen and hundreds of buildings and structures. There are also scenes of people ice skating, throwing snowballs, skiing, and a little girl making angels in the snow.

Kim Soth, 11, of Edgewood recently visited the train garden and thought it was colorful but a little confusing with all the trains running every which way, she said.

"You can't tell where the trains start and where they finish," Soth said. "But it's neat to watch."

During the holiday season, Sturgeon spends about two hours a day on maintenance of the garden, said his wife, June Sturgeon, who helps him check the lights and other problems with the tracks before they open each day.

She said she also helps him change the train garden each year. They spend the year shopping for new items.

"The regulars come in, and he has them look for what's new in the garden," said June Sturgeon, 57. "We argue over what's going to come out. There are some things I refuse to let him remove. We already have five or six items for next year."

Sometimes the items come from shows and antique shops, and some items have been donated.

Michael Dean donated an engine that he had as a boy, and he enjoys coming to the garden and seeing it on the tracks, he said.

"When I walk in here it's like `oooooooh,' `aaaaaahh,'" said Dean, who owns a 7-Eleven store in White Marsh.

This year, the Sturgeons added several ceramic pieces, including a Wal-Mart superstore, a Pizza Hut, a general store and a vegetable stand, to name a few.

Celeste Dean, an annual visitor, has watched the garden's transformation for the past seven years, she said.

"It's like a fantasyland," said Dean, 62, of Joppatowne. "There is so much to see, you can't see it all in one visit."

Although she enjoys looking at the train garden, it's Sturgeon who gets her into the Christmas spirit, she said.

"John is so excited about the trains," she said. "When I come here, he makes me feel like being a kid. You can't help but smile."

The train garden is located at 836 Turf Valley Drive in Pasadena. It is open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 20-23 and Dec. 26 and 27. Santa will be on site through Dec. 23.

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