There was more than one reason for people to put away their differences last month, whether they were generational, political, religious, or old Crozet vs. newcomer. The first, of course, was Christmas, and the holiday was especially welcome after a few difficult years. Lights, wreaths, nativity scenes and Santas seemed to spring up in unusual abundance overnight, with symbols of the season ranging from exuberant to solemn. As is the custom in Crozet, churches welcomed all those not of their particular faith to join holiday parties, religious observations, charitable works, pageants and caroling.
There was a second, much more local, phenomenon that attracted a mix of generations and backgrounds not ordinarily seen together. History lovers, railroad buffs, children, grandparents, tourists, long-time and temporary residents, dog walkers, and the merely curious gathered at the tiny Addle Hill Park in Old Trail to watch an elaborate outdoor model railroad wind in and out of the scenic hills surrounding a rural town.
Roger Hodskins, the planner, lead carpenter, dispatcher and trouble shooter for the Christmas railroad, said there were a couple of nights during the week the trains ran where attendance topped 500 people. There were those who came just before dark to see the buildings, engines and boxcars in the daylight, and those who enjoyed the beautifully-lit nighttime display.
Hodskins, a model railroad fan since he was a small boy, said he especially enjoyed the stories his visitors told. Some had people in their families––parents and grandparents–– who had worked as engineers and conductors on the Norfolk and Southern as well as other regional railroads across the country. One woman told the story, passed on by her grandfather, that engineers had to retire when they could no longer climb the steep vertical ladder into the engineer compartment of the locomotive.
“At least two individuals told me stories about traveling cross country by hopping freight cars,” Hodskins said. “But my favorite story may have been the little girl who, when she heard I built the railroad in my workshop, asked if I had elves to help me.” Naturally, Hodskins said yes.
He wasn’t stretching the truth. Those who visited the railroad this year (last year’s holiday season was the first year of the display) noticed the railroad ran through a recognizable landscape. Hodskins and his “elves” re-created many scenes from in and around Crozet, from the tunnel to the lumber yard to the iconic strip of ancient buildings, now housing current businesses, in the center of town.
The tunnel was the top attraction this year, Hodskins said. It was a donation from two neighborhood volunteers, Amy and Craig Nikol. “They asked if they could build something for this year’s display and I told them that after ‘downtown Crozet’ the feature most requested last year was the Blue Ridge Tunnel.”
Hodskins said the Nikols spent many days creating the tunnel out of wire and paper mache, with amazing details. They got in touch with the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, and the foundation sent them images from the actual trailhead signs to help them fashion exact replicas. And “the mountain was covered with hikers, bears, deer and foxes, which the children just loved to discover,” Hodskins said.
There were unexpected helpers. One visitor brought two boxes, and explained that her husband had always wanted to build a train display for children but died before he could realize his dream. She had spoken with her children and they all agreed that donating his trains to the Crozet display would be a way to honor his legacy.
“When I opened the boxes, I was stunned to see that the locomotive was not an electric train, but an actual working live steam model the same size as my display trains,” Hodskins said. “I had hoped to get it running this year, but sadly the specialty supplies I needed to run the steam locomotive were not available in time. I am committed to trying to bring this engine to life and running it on the next display. It would be my honor to do so.”
Hodskins wanted to acknowledge other helpers. “This year’s display would not have been a success without the help of so many neighbors. I had help from Karl Gass, Phil Sandine and Tom Edgar in both transporting the display from my shop in Batesville to Old Trail, and in the raising of the tallest part of the display.
“Cathy McGrane became our village ‘decorator-in-Chief,’ and set out all the people, trees and vehicles with whimsical scenes, even donating some of her own lights and craft materials. Many of the same people, along with Chris Owens, helped string the hundreds of lights. Michael Morgan was a huge help every evening, along with Marianne Sandine and John Smith, who helped bring out the trains and take them back in at night. Jim and Diane Sarosiek helped with lights and Devon Lowdon helped with construction.
“All of them provided much-needed help in crowd management when I was, frankly, a bit overwhelmed. The neighborhood support was wonderful.”
At last year’s display, many people requested that the generic village look more like downtown Crozet. Hodskins listened: “I spent some time in my workshop this fall trying to recreate at least one small section of the downtown area. I enjoy modeling, but the biggest challenge was to try and get the scale correct from the pictures I took.”
It was a big hit, Hodskins said, and he was glad to see that the owners of Bluebird & Company came and were so touched that they posted about the display on their Instagram account.
“Crozet Pizza was also a big hit, and many young visitors would point out the Albemarle Dance Studio and say, “That’s where I take dance lessons!”
The tunnel and the downtown Crozet scene weren’t the only changes in this year’s display. Last year, many people offered to make a donation to support the expense of putting the railroad together. Hodskins refused, but a seed was planted. This year, he accepted donations of supplies and money for the Crozet Cares Closet. His wife, Joan, is one of the founders and leaders of this interfaith charity that gives personal and household cleanliness products to those who need them.
The donations exceeded any expectations, Joan reported. “We were delighted, touched, truly humbled. Night after night, display visitors brought items or entire grocery bags filled with donated products. The bin was full each evening.”
As of late December, Joan had counted 25 full bags containing an array of products, and they keep on coming. “Since the display closed, a few bags of donations have been left at our front door,” she said. During the train’s operating hours, people also donated cash at the train site and online through the secure portal at Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s website, including at least $150 from neighbors.
Like Roger, Joan wanted to acknowledge some behind-the-scenes help. She thanked Terry Burton, her colleague in supporting the Crozet Cares Closet, for executing the design for the Crozet Cares Closet flyer available to visitors at the display, as well as the sign posted at the donation bin. “Since the Closet’s beginning earlier this year, Terry has been our amazing social media guru, creating all of the Closet’s graphics and posts for Facebook, Instagram, and Nextdoor,” Joan said. The posts appeared on all those platforms before, during, and after the trains ran.
Joan said the display was a teaching moment for those who came unprepared to donate products. They grabbed flyers with information about the Crozet Cares Closet available at the bin, listing the items needed, plus the Amazon wish list QR code, the online monetary donations portal link, and the other locations in the community where the Closet has donation bins. For those who missed the bin at the display, the bins are year-round at Crozet Baptist and Emmanuel Episcopal churches and Denise Ramey’s realty office in Clover Lawn.
Both the Crozet Cares Closet and the railroad take a lot of energy, but the Hodskins are already looking ahead to 2024. “I sincerely hope to be able to do the display again next year,” Roger said, “maybe with a few new additions and surprises. It has been a lot of fun for everyone.”