Laying Down Tracks

Train Garden Aficionado Offers Advice On How To Dazzle And Delight With Tiny Wonderland

December 06, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts , jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

The man dressed as Santa enters his garage, turns on the lights and seems for all the world to have switched on a miracle.

A miniature village sprawls in all directions, the townspeople going about their business in driveways, at restaurants, on ski slopes.

Ferris wheels spin, headlights flash, bridge spans rise and fall, and with a low roar that rises to a din, 13 trains on 700 feet of track come to life, climbing hillsides, rounding bends, belching smoke.

The light falling on John Sturgeon's face, complete with his paste-on white beard, reveals a man wholly in his element. Sturgeon, 62, has just opened his well-known train garden for a 14th consecutive year. The monthlong spectacle has become an unofficial symbol of the holiday season in Anne Arundel County.

The 1,500 who stopped by his Pasadena home last year (no charge) set his record. A CNN reporter tracked him on opening night this season, and there are already plenty of glowing responses in his visitors' log.

"Glad to be back!" writes a member of the Gauthier family of Pasadena. "We look forward to this every year. Never disappointed," add the Baumanns. "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful," writes Alberta Bargen.

Sturgeon calls his train garden the county's biggest, and it takes an entire club to run its chief rival, the one at Marley Station mall. But factoids are no measure of the holiday cheer this display creates.

It's a complex job, generating Yuletide cheer as big as the North Pole, as noisy as reindeer on the roof. Here are some tips from Santa Sturgeon:

Start early: You can't choose your parents, but John Sturgeon was lucky: His dad was a train buff and train garden lover with a keen eye for locomotive detail. In 1947, he gave his son six model-train cars the day he was born, and they're part of his display now. Also, as a kid, Sturgeon spent lots of time at a Kentucky train yard, watching the cars come and go. "Biggest things I'd ever seen," he says.

Collect creatively: Trains and display items are expensive, so Sturgeon has used every available resource. For years, when he was a Baltimore police sergeant, he had a second job as a security guard in a hobby shop. He earned as much as $5,000 a year - and asked to be paid in trains.

Authentic Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore County model police cars are unavailable to the public, so Sturgeon's come from his buddies in law enforcement. Another friend who works at CSX supplied the 15-foot "R.R. CROSSING" sign that flashes out front.

Mind the small stuff: Supply lots of detail anywhere a visitor might look. "Sturgeon Town" personifies this idea. At a drive-in theater, speakers sit beside the parked cars; cartoon hot dogs dance across the movie screen as in ads of yore. There are I.D. numbers on top of every police car, and most of the hundreds of train cars sport authentic names and logos: Boraxo, Chesapeake & Ohio, Chessie System, Center City Trolley.

At a classic McDonald's restaurant, tiny Christmas lights hang from the Golden Arches.

Have a sense of humor: Sturgeon has tiny cops arresting three robbers - in front of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. Three dogs chase a hapless mailman in an eternal circle. A giant frank rotates atop the "Humble Hot Dogs" drive-in. Where one well-dressed gentleman can be seen doffing his cap to a lady, a Dalmatian lifts his leg periodically to do his business.

"One lady complained about that," Sturgeon says, "but I still think it's funny!"

Favor the kids: Thomas the Tank Engine of kid-TV fame (his eyes perpetually spinning) runs on a track on the outside edge of the display, right at kids'-eye height; so does a replica of the train from the movie "Polar Express." Children get exclusive views beneath a periphery of railroad bridges - right onto some of the town's sprightliest displays, including a frozen pond on which hockey players pass a puck.

Honor the past: "Train gardens are a dying art, but they're part of Baltimore history," says Sturgeon, who rhapsodizes to anyone who will listen about his growing-up days, when firehouses and Legion halls displayed their own gardens every year. He also puts history on display, including signs from the Lackawanna, Chessie, Erie and Northern Pacific railroads, and hats from CSX, Lionel and the MARC system.

Animate, animate: Authentic trains and a vast layout are great, but movement makes magic. Flip on the power and see a tiny man on a ladder reaching up with a paint roller to plaster a new ad ("Lionelville") onto a billboard. Watch lights flash inside the firehouse as the firemen circle a pole. A watchman emerges from a guard shed, holding up a lantern, each time a train comes round the bend, and as the balloons pass by during a circular parade, spectators' heads turn.

"A train garden is a town; a town has life," Sturgeon says. "People love movement."

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