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Tiny trains bring big smiles

By Bethany Swain, CNN
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  • Maryland couple open their indoor train garden to the public each holiday season
  • Model train collection started with a train given to John Sturgeon as an infant
  • The collection has grown to 11 intertwined train sets divided into summer and winter scenes
  • The Sturgeons built a detached garage for the display, which drew 1,200 visitors last year

Pasadena, Maryland (CNN) -- Children point at the glass as a long train rounds the bend and Thomas the Tank Engine passes overhead. Outside, a flashing red signal tells neighbors it's time to hop aboard.

Welcome to John and June Sturgeon's indoor train garden, a collection of model trains the couple have been sharing with friends and neighbors every holiday season for nearly 15 years.

"We love it, that's why we do it," says June Sturgeon.

The collection began with a train John's father gave him as an infant 62 years ago. John still has the train, and many more.

The garden has grown to include 11 intertwined train sets, divided into summer and winter scenes. Once the collection outgrew their house, the Sturgeons built a detached building the size of a two-car garage specifically to hold the display year round.

"I venture to say, each year I put at least a hundred hours in here," John says. "That's before Christmas and setting everything up and changing this around ... and fine-tuning, fixing anything that's broke."

Gallery: Holiday train garden

Last year, more than 1,200 people followed the lit path to the backyard garage, including regulars like Jason Gauchier and his two children, who come at least once a week when the display is open.

"They've been looking forward to it for about three months now," says Gauchier, who brought his children on opening night as he has for five years. "And then ... when it closes [they're] looking forward to it next year."

Besides the regulars, there are first-time guests like Sara Dolan, who came with her granddaughter. "It's absolutely wonderful," Dolan said, "all of the extra things that they've added, it's just fabulous."

The collection can be overwhelming at first, with all of the sounds and flashing lights that fill the building. The miniature villages and communities are filled with happy people, living a peaceful life in a different time. With all the wires out of sight, it looks like magic.

The Sturgeons have worked consistently to make additions to the train garden.

"Basically it is an all year thing, but the final push is from September 'til now" June said.

Adds John, "It usually takes us a month or so to get the backyard here all decorated. ... It's quite a bit of work." There's a separate garage for repairs.

It does my heart good to see the little sparkle in their eyes.
--John Sturgeon, train garden owner

"There's a train we added this year that has 30 cars on it. Well, it's 29 cars plus the engine makes it 30," John says. "I've tested it a little bit -- I'm hoping we don't have any problems with that, cause that's a pretty long train. So it runs the whole length of a board, approximately 30 feet."

This year John, a retired police officer, also added a scene with a doughnut delivery truck being robbed as a police cruiser comes to the rescue. The regular guests enjoy seeing the new details, but they also come to see Santa Claus.

"Santa Claus is here every night, every night until Christmas, and most of [the children] bring me their wish list," John says behind the white beard and red suit.

The Sturgeons open their collection for 20 nights each year leading up to Christmas. The evening routine begins with setting up the outside lights and inflatable decorations. Visitors know they've reached the right place when they see the brightest house on the street, complete with holiday music. The front window of the house has a replica of the leg-shaped lamp from the classic holiday movie "A Christmas Story".

"It does my heart good to see the little sparkle in their eyes when they come around and see Santa or see the trains, and it lights my heart up."