by KATE EVANS
So many people have fond childhood memories of Christmas train displays during the holidays, positioned under or near the family Christmas tree with hand-sculpted mountains, landscapes, tunnels, buildings and villagers.
Berkeley Springs resident Evan Reichard, a longtime Morgan County Concert Band member and community volunteer, has spent a lifetime building and painting train and circus model displays, carrying on a family tradition.
His large train display has more than 3,000 figures, most of which are hand-painted with six colors.
Reichard, who is turning 89 this year, said he changes the scenery and details for his displays, interchanging and adding pieces, all to delight his different guests.
Reichard has two collections –one an 1850s display and the other a 1950s collection. Both have nativity scenes. Reichard assembled the houses, too.
Before 1945, Reichard had assembled train kits like a wooden set of the DeWitt Clinton locomotive and coaches.
Reichard remembered his parents, Harold B. and Helen Lawrence Reichard, mysteriously produced a train garden or “putz” overnight that appeared on Christmas Day. Putz was a colloquial word for Christmas displays in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, according to Reichard.
In the Lehigh Valley area tradition, the putz needed a nativity scene. His family’s putz included a Lionel train that ran on three rails, he said.
Reichard still has his family’s original Christmas train, which includes the vintage 1936 Lionel Steam-type “Distant Control” Locomotive and Tender, two-tone green and cream Pullman cars and an Observation Car. A tender carries fuel (wood, coal, oil) and water for a steam locomotive.
Reichard’s wife Lois Houk Reichard assembled the buildings from kits while Reichard did the roof shingles.
Reichard recalled that his dad bought an HO Gilbert American Flyer freight set around 1944. Reichard was asked to assemble paper houses for the train display.
Reichard owns an assortment of miniature train sets including DeWitt Clinton, King of Prussia, John Bull, Western & Atlantic and KCC&C locomotives, Early American Flyer coaches, a Blue British seam passenger set, Leopold the German railway cannon and industrial 4 wheel switchers. Switchers are small locomotives used for assembling train cars in a railyard.
Reichard has his dad’s stuff and the trains his father left him in the showcase.
His father learned about circus models through the Model Railroader magazine. In 1945, Reichard’s Christmas gift included two circus cage wagons and a flat car to transport them. Each was a kit and needed assembled, Reichard said. With these kits the family heritage and the tradition of the Lehigh Valley Christmas “putz” was passed on to him.
Reichard’s circus showcase is eight feet wide and 16 feet long and is a small part of the portable display created in 1976 by the Circus Model Builder’s and Owner’s Association Rudynoff Family Ring #60, which Reichard helped form. It was a group of hobbyists dedicated to building model circuses.
Their model circus display’s first showing was at a national Circus Model Builders gathering in Springfield, Ohio in July, 1976. Their display was featured at a national gathering at the Howard County Fairgrounds in Maryland, said Reichard.
It was also on display during the Christmas season at Harford Mall in Bel Air, Maryland from 1977-1983 as well as at several Baltimore County Public Library System branches and Circus Fans of America conventions in Gettysburg and Columbia, Maryland.
Most of Reichard’s display figures were purchased commercially, with the early figures made of lead and later ones made of pewter. The newest ones are plastic. If a specially posed figure was needed, Reichard made it from white pine.
Some display figures and scenes Reichard depicted included Indians, buffalo, a wagon train, horse riders, Union & Confederate soldiers, cowboys, pioneers, men panning for gold, people playing checkers, nuns, someone getting married at a church, a wedding party at a restaurant and the Pope.
He has a peacock and a burial service in a churchyard, a boy flying a kite, a little girl crying because her cat’s up in a tree with a fireman trying to rescue it and a sheriff taking a drunk to jail while the bank is being robbed. Reichard said he tries to put a little humor in the scenes he portrays.
Reichard also has a collection of presidential limousines with 45 Presidential figures.
The 1850s display is four feet wide and 12 feet long. Reichard created the display in 1996. His wife Lois Houk Reichard gave him a Christmas gift of an HO (half old gauge) scale General locomotive in 1956 that’s featured.
Green and gold fencing used by his father from late 1930s through 1965 as a protective edging for the Christmas putz can be seen.
“You were allowed to look but not to touch anything inside that fence,” Reichard said.
Reichard also has railroad and Circus Model Builders memorabilia, an antique auto collection, an HO vehicle assortment, figure and circus wagon assortment and a street parade of British Chipperfield Motorized Circus along with a medallion of the five Ringling Brothers, early British HO figures and some wooden nickels.
A lost art
Reichard said he’s really enjoyed building and painting his train and circus displays all these years — putting them together and making them work. The trains were an incentive to learn electricity. It’s a lost art, he noted of his pastime.
Reichard was an industrial arts teacher and an architect and always enjoyed working with his hands. His family always said “that if I can’t fix it, it’s broke.”
Reichard said he shows his trains and circus model displays to school groups, church groups, and his grandkids. Four busloads of pre-K and kindergarten kids from Berkeley Springs schools came out to see his collections in previous years.
Reichard made a sword swallower figure that incorporated motion for his circus display. He redesigned it and made it work when the figure broke.
“You can do almost anything. The thing is how badly do you want it and what’s the quality you deserve,” Reichard emphasized.