Standing in a small dimly lit room on the lower level of the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company on Sunday afternoon, Ryan Molesworth, 5, could barely contain his excitement.
“Daddy, come see! He said, pulling Matt Molesworth’s hand.
Then, before his father could follow him, he was gone, rushing between tables cluttered with tiny figurines and painstakingly assembled snowy scenes. Eyes wide in wonder, Ryan watched a model train pass him, looping around a small motorized boy making endless snow angels.
With the return of the Holiday Train Gardens, it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas. The Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company model train exhibit reopened on December 4, and the Frederick County Society of Model Engineers and Town of Thurmont managed exhibit arrived for the fourth consecutive year on November 27.
Mary Alexander, financial secretary for the fire company, estimated that the city’s holiday train garden had been in operation for about 15 years. She helped design it as a member of the fire company train committee for about a decade.
Before Alexander began volunteering on the train committee, she had never been too interested in model trains or even considered herself particularly astute. But on Sunday, just a day after this season’s train garden started, she’s already found herself pondering what next year’s show should look like.
She doesn’t need pen and paper to sketch out design ideas – she does it all in her head.
“It’s a scary space,” she joked with a laugh with her friend, Janet Woodfield, secretary of the volunteer fire company.
While she tries to make adjustments to the display every year – mixing things up for families who return each holiday season – there are a few mainstays. The train committee always features a miniature replica of Mount Airy’s Main Street in the garden, and Alexander likes to include a scene from the 1964 stop-motion animated TV special, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” This is the year she was born, she said, and it’s fun to bring a touch of nostalgia to older parents and grandparents who visit the exhibit.
When designing each year’s model, she “works so low,” she said – “at the height of the children.” Beneath a row of sloping snow mounds, this season’s display includes a preview of the activity at Santa’s Workshop. Even though adults have to crouch down to peek, the scene is eye level for kids like Ryan and his 18-month-old sister, Clare.
“It’s all about kids,” Alexander said, smiling under his mask.
Dylan Owens, president of the Frederick County Society of Model Engineers, echoed the sentiment.
Every year when kids see the association’s exhibit for the first time, it’s so fun to see their expressions, Owens said. Often the first word that comes out of their mouth is “Wow”.
“That’s what we’re looking for – that ‘wow factor’,” he laughed.
Similar to the team of volunteers at the Fire Company, Owens and other members of the Society of Model Engineers try to adapt their display every year. Although the garden only included two simple amenities when it began four years ago, it now includes three large trains and a Christmas village of porcelain figurines and houses, as well as famous locomotives like Thomas the Tank Engine and Polar Express.
Owens said it was also fun chatting with parents about the model trains they played with when they were kids. It has become a joke among him and the other club members that these visitors likely return home and immediately search their attics for their old trains.
At Mount Airy, Alexander and his fellow volunteers used to take their exhibit apart every year so the fire company could use the space for other purposes. Now, however, they are able to keep the screen on all year round – they simply turn the lights back on and remove the plexiglass from the tables, so the room can be used as a workspace.
But as Christmas approaches each year, they put the glass back around the tables and dim the lights once more. Then they turn on the tiny light bulbs in the train – the ones that glow in the windows of miniature buildings and streetlights.
This is Alexander’s favorite part of getting the train garden ready for another season.
“That’s when the magic happens,” she said.
Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @ 24_angier