Dec. 6—Standing in a small, dimly lit room on the lower level of the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company Sunday afternoon, 5-year-old Ryan Molesworth could hardly contain his excitement.
"Daddy, come see!" he said, pulling at the hand of Matt Molesworth.
Then, before his father could follow, he was gone, dashing between tables crowded with tiny figurines and intricately assembled snowy scenes. Eyes wide with wonder, Ryan watched as a model train chugged past him, looping around a motorized little boy making endless snow angels.
With the return of holiday train gardens, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company's model train display re-opened on Dec. 4 and the display run by the Frederick County Society of Model Engineers and the town of Thurmont arrived for the fourth year running on Nov. 27.
Mary Alexander, financial secretary for the fire company, estimated that the town's holiday train garden has been chugging along for about 15 years. She's helped design it as a member of the fire company's train committee for about a decade.
Before Alexander started volunteering with the train committee, she'd never been too interested in model train sets or even considered herself particularly crafty. But on Sunday, just one day after the debut of this season's train garden, she already found herself thinking about what next year's display should look like.
She doesn't need pen and paper to sketch out design ideas — she does everything in her head.
"It's a scary space," she joked, laughing along with her friend, Janet Woodfield, secretary of the volunteer fire company.
Though she tries to make adjustments to the display each year — mixing things up for the families who return every holiday season — there are some 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 television special, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." That's the year when she was born, she said, and it's fun bringing a helping of nostalgia to older parents and grandparents who are visiting the display.
When she's designing each year's model, she also "works low," she said — at "kid height." Below a row of sloping snow mounds, this season's display includes a snapshot of activity at Santa's workshop. Though grown-ups might have to crouch to take a peek, the scene is at perfect eye-level for children like Ryan and his 18-month-old sister, Clare.
"It's all about the kids," Alexander said, smiling beneath her mask.
Dylan Owens, president of the Frederick County Society of Model Engineers, echoed this sentiment.
Every year, when children see the nonprofit's display for the first time, it's so much fun to see their expressions, Owens said. Often, the first word out of their mouths is "Wow."
"That's what we're looking for — that 'wow factor,'" he said with a laugh.
Similar to the fire company's team of volunteers, Owens and other members of the model engineers society try to adapt their display every year. Though the garden only included two simple lay-outs when it began four years ago, it now features three large train sets and a Christmas village made from porcelain figurines and houses, as well as famous locomotives like Thomas the Tank Engine and the Polar Express.
Owens said it's also been fun to chat with parents about the model train sets they used to play with as kids. It's become a joke among him and other club members that these visitors likely return home and immediately dig through their attics to find their old trains.
In Mount Airy, Alexander and her fellow volunteers used to tear down their display each year so the fire company could use the space for other purposes. Now, however, they're able to keep the display up year-round — they just turn the lights back on and remove the Plexiglass from the tables, so the room can be used as a work space.
But as Christmas approaches each year, they place the glass back around the tables and dim the lights once more. Then, they turn up the tiny bulbs in the train set — the ones glowing from the windows of miniature buildings and street lights.
It's 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