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Old Windup Trains
by James Pekarek

This book is an introduction to collecting and operating vintage O gauge windup trains. It highlights windup locomotives from a variety of eras, as well as discusses rolling stock, track and operation. Great for beginner or seasoned toy train collectors.
                                   
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Here you'll find articles about historical traditions and customs in which
antiques and collectibles played a part.

LATEST ARTICLE_______________________________________

The Magical World Under the Christmas Tree
by Bob Brooke

 

I can remember when I was a kid and the look of surprise on my face as I gazed up in wonderment at the glimmering tree on Christmas morning. As my eyes moved downward, they settled on a charming little "village" under the tree, complete with houses, a church, a Nativity scene and a toy train running around an oval track. I thought Santa brought all this, when in fact, it was my parents who worked feverishly on Christmas Eve after I went to bed to make my Christmas dream come true.



Times have changed. Trees are no longer real, high-tech toys replace blocks and Lincoln logs, as Christmas gets more and more commercial. But one thing hasn't changed, my love of the magical world under the Christmas tree.

The custom of building a village under the tree began with the Moravians, who built a PUTZ or Christmas tree yard under their trees. The term was derived from the German verb PUTZEN, to decorate. No two were alike, but originally they all represented the stable scene, complete with Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus.



Preparations began in September, when each Moravian family would dig up clumps of green moss and replant it in the cool, damp ground of their cellar. A few days before Christmas, they'd carefully dig it up again to use as the green grass of their putz. They also hunted for old tree stumps, which they turned upside down and draped with moss. The gnarled roots of the old tree, set inside a hill of dirt and rocks, created an impression of a grotto for tiny figures of shepherds and sheep to peer out of.

In addition to the stable there was frequently a winding sawdust or sand road, which had to be long enough to accommodate as many as three hundred small wooden animals proceeding two by two up the road to Noah's Ark.

By the 1870's, tin soldiers and other secular toys had entered this small world, the construction of which for many families became even more time-consuming than the tree itself.

Separate areas under the tree were developed with different themes, radiating out from the Nativity scene. Farms and villages became more elaborate each year, since families had little else to do for evening entertainment.

Many of these Christmas yardsthe first ones were surrounded by a white picket fence had snow- or moss-covered hills which reached a height of three to five feet. Some even had streams, cascading waterfalls, and lakes fed by cisterns temporarily placed in the room above. Cranks, pulleys, springs and water power drove a myriad of clockwork devices that made sawmills work, gave the illusion of children playing on seesaws, or sent a herd of livestock across a bridge.

By the 1890's, people could buy artificial moss or grass-green sawdust by the bag, as well as tiny iron fences and trees. Cotton batting and mica crystals represented snow and pieces of broken mirrors made perfect ice-covered ponds. Soon, entire villages of printed cardboard became available along with lead and plaster people.

Time and the 20th century brought steel-spring wind-up trains and alcohol-burning steam trains that ran around a track billowing puffs of steam until the water in the boiler dissipated.

Finally, electric trains joined the wonderful miniature world in 1901, when Joshua Lionel made his first ones. From that time on, toys that fathers could give their sons and play with themselves joined the simple manger scene as an integral part of the American holiday season.

Toy trains have long since been associated with the holiday season. One of the best displays is at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1954 by the Train Collectors Association of Yardley, Pennsylvania, this non-profit museum displays original examples of toy trains dating from late 19th century to the present.

Nearby, the Choo Choo Barn, Traintown, USA, is a family hobby that got out of hand. What started in 1945 as a single train chugging around the Groff family Christmas tree is now a 1,700-square-foot fully operating model train display featuring 16 Lionel trains and 140 animated scenes reproducing Lancaster County in miniature. Every five minutes a house catches on fire and fire engines turn on their hoses to extinguish the blaze. Flag bearers march in a Memorial Day parade. And there's even a carnival and a three-ring circus. Periodically, the overhead lights dim and streetlights glow and locomotive headlights pierce the darkness.



But the granddaddy of them all is Roadside America. Located off of I-78 in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, it's the largest indoor miniature village in the country. In true Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, this PUTZ takes in a whole building and took over 60 years to build.

Roadside America is unique not only for its miniature hand-made trains that roll through its countryside, but also for the variety of miniature buildings, many of them exact models of Pennsylvania landmarks. There's continual movement, as swift trains glide through tunnels and over bridges past a tiny zoo, an old grist mill that grinds flour, and downtown Fairfield, the make-believe town. It's so big, it takes several hours to see it all.

Read more about the National Train Museum.

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