Last summer I spotted an elf at work in downtown Cambridge.
Wearing offseason attire — shorts and t-shirt — he hunkered amidst a gaggle of model train equipment inside the “old” firehouse, the door ajar to let in some air.
Waving me inside, it seemed like Christmas in July! The elf was volunteer firefighter Gary Hickman, devoting his Sunday, like many others and untold midnight hours, toward December’s 85th consecutive running of the Cambridge Holiday Train Garden.
Hickman helms the Rescue Fire Company’s Train Garden committee, 10 or so dedicated firefighters and honorary volunteers for whom the near year-round effort is a labor of love.
“We might take a break in January, but February we start planning next year,” explained committee member Michael S. Wheatley. “We all have a lot going on and can’t put in eight straight hours a day, so we come in weekends, Sunday after church, sometimes 2 or 3 in the morning.”
On a recent November Sunday, Wheatley and firefighter Andrew Bradshaw and several others were there setting up. They spoke of the train garden’s long tradition and what it means to Cambridge.
Bradshaw, who, along with Hickman serves as “chief engineer” of train operations (his dad, Larry, is the display’s electrical guru), also brings a college degree in history into the mix, offering insight into the unique story behind fire station train gardens.
“It’s a uniquely Maryland thing,” he said, originating with German immigrants to the Baltimore area in the 1920s and ’30s, who created creche or nativity scenes and “putz” villages, eventually featuring model trains.
“Cambridge was the only Eastern Shore fire department to be doing this back then,” he added, with the added distinction of being perhaps the oldest consecutively run train display in the country. There are larger, more ornate permanent displays built in the ’50s and ’60s in Pennsylvania, including Roadside America. And Station 45 in North Baltimore is on their 64th consecutive year and the only one left in the city. But Cambridge is the longest running, Bradshaw added.
Wheatley brings marketing and community outreach skills, but also delights in devoting each December night to welcoming visitors, selling popcorn, peanuts, coffee, hot chocolate, and souvenirs, plus ensuring a family friendly environment including Santa visits and a Santa “hot line” for youngsters to call. Seating is available throughout; especially popular is the specially created “fireplace” area.
Wheatley said he is especially proud to help the Cambridge Young Professionals sponsor a Toy and Food Drive via the Train Garden to help “lower income community members plus those struggling with sudden financial hardship due to accident or illness.”
“As a little kid, I remember the train garden was set up in the back; this (the current train board site setup) was where the actual fire trucks parked, and I remember we would walk between the firetrucks to get there. I was so excited to be able to see a firetruck!” Wheatley recalled.
Several years ago, the Rescue Fire Station moved to the town’s Public Safety Building on Washington Street, allowing the train garden to move indoors, and supply ample storage for vehicles, track and buildings. Bradshaw is proud of repairing and returning to use items like the iconic vintage McDonald’s building, featuring sounds and cars passing through the drive-thru, which he, too, remembers from childhood.
“This was forever the firehouse, and I think, still, the department’s spiritual home, to some extent. In a sense, it’s thought of by many as the ‘real’ firehouse,” Bradshaw said. “Where the equipment is now, that’s where they park the trucks.
(Fortunately, the train garden workers who gathered at 8 a.m. that Sunday to continue setting up arrived with two firetrucks. A call came in reporting a nearby house with six children and six adults on fire, so Hickman, Bradshaw, and others hurried to the scene.)
Today the main board covers roughly 45 by 20 feet, with side specialty boards surrounding the central town area. There are 16 trains and trolleys, — “12 or 13 actual trains, then some bump-and-go trolleys,” Bradshaw added — crossing train tracks which return automatically upon reaching line’s end), traveling on more than 900 feet of track, 300 of which he laid out this year.
While continuing to showcase many longtime Cambridge neighborhoods and businesses, new touches include replicas of the recently opened Starbucks and Taco Bell at Cambridge Marketplace on Rt. 50. Construction workers and equipment plus “piled up” gray rubble resembling recently torn down remnants of the old Kmart building, have also been added, Bradshaw noted.
Each year he donates a commissioned building model created by Rhodesdale craftsman Richard Kirwan. In 2018 it was an extremely detailed replica of the Old Firehouse. This year, it’s a model based on a former Trappe drive-in theater merging modern and vintage. An iPad becomes the movie screen to display classic Christmas movies including Rudolph and Charlie Brown, interspersed with actual ‘old time’ intermission ads of dancing popcorn and soda.
Kirwan is currently crafting next year’s model of the historic Phillips Packing House. “The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s currently restoring and renovating the site,” Bradshaw said. Originally planned for 2019, the project was paused when the iconic round smoke stakes couldn’t be made with brick.
“Recently we found a manufacturer at a show who does plaster smokestacks that are a perfect match to the ones here in town,” Bradshaw said, adding that when completed, the stacks will appear to emit smoke.
Quality and detail are as crucial as quantity, Bradshaw said, in part, because community businesses and organizations generously donate to the effort. They buy “billboards” displayed throughout the model town and banners, hung along the walls. But also, he added, because so many consider the tradition a treasured gift given to each new generation.
The train garden also plays a role in the ongoing revitalization of Cambridge. Among the committee’s goals is actively building a network with downtown businesses, partnering with recent additions like Blue Ruin pub, which is creating a new beverage honoring the train garden (working title: “Kick in the Caboose”) and the Maiden Maryland shop.
“Historically, the Rescue Fire Company was such a big part of the Cambridge community, so we’re trying to carry that on,” Bradshaw said.
The Cambridge Rescue and Fire Company Holiday Train Garden at 307 Gay Street, Cambridge, Maryland is open December 1 through 31st, weekends 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m., weeknights 6 to 9 p.m., and closed Christmas Day (open Christmas Eve.) Free Admission.
Donations of money, new toys, and/or non-perishable food items are welcome. For group reservations contact J.B. Tieder at 410-228-5262. For more information, call 410-228-1211.
Train garden on track for 85th year
Last summer I spotted an elf at work in downtown Cambridge.