Six-year-old Adam Messmer watched wide-eyed, as a model train pulled freight cars and tankers through a Christmas landscape that takes up every inch of Dan Schmidt’s front yard in Overland.
“There it is. There it is. There it is,’’ Adam called out, as the red and silver Santa Fe engine reappeared from a tunnel and chugged past a little church and a drive-in theater showing a video of “A Miracle on 34th Street.”
Adam has toy trains of his own, and this is one of his favorite Christmas displays, said Amie Messmer, his mother. They live nearby in Maryland Heights.
“We come every year,’’ she said. “He likes trains — probably since he was 2.”
The layout is a permanent fixture in the front yard of Schmidt's brick bungalow on Windom Avenue. He's a landscaper who designed this train garden with a gushing waterfall and six separate tracks. He runs G-scale trains, which are larger than most model trains.
Schmidt plants flowers in the spring and summer, but in December — after the leaves from his neighbor’s oak tree stop falling — he transforms the garden into a winter wonderland.
If you’re looking for an over-the-top light show with synchronized Christmas carols, you won’t find it here. Schmidt uses holiday lights as a backdrop, but the trains are the stars of this show.
“I don't try to compete with the trains, I let them do the talking,’’ Schmidt said. “I admire the technology that these million dollar homes have with all the computerized and flashing lights. It's awesome to look at. But that's not my cup of tea.’’
Schmidt calls his set-up “Dan’s Emerald Forest,’’ and the Roadside America website lists it among must-see St. Louis road attractions. He keeps in touch with his fans on Facebook and posts a train schedule so they can plan a visit. The trains don’t run on Mondays or Tuesdays, or when it rains.
On weekends in December, the line of cars passing by is sometimes bumper to bumper. Schmidt keeps a bonfire going in the driveway for folks who get out of their cars for a closer look.
“That's a must because it does two things. It lets people stay a little longer, and it helps build a rapport with me and them,’’ he said. “That's part of Christmas, too, you know.”
For Gary Underwood, 68, of St. Peters, the trains bring back memories.
“When we were little kids, maybe our parents had a tree and a train, and it was just so much fun,’’ he said. “So here we are many, many years later bringing our grandchildren out here.’’
Linsey Powell, Underwood’s 12-year-old granddaughter, thought it was pretty.
“I was just expecting a few trains going through a little village,’’ she said. “This was way more than what I expected it to be. Even though it's really cold, it's still really cool to see.”
For fans of model trains, the holiday season arrives by steam locomotive. Hobbyists spend countless hours building and operating seasonal model train displays — both indoors and out — that are popular with children of all ages. There are dozens of train clubs in the St. Louis region, and many of them put on shows and displays during the holidays that are open to the public.
Toy historians say Americans started putting trains under their Christmas trees more than a hundred years ago.
Jim Morrison, 79, of the National Christmas Center in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, believes the custom evolved from the religious tradition of constructing nativity scenes under trees. In the mid-1800s, families began adding village scenes, and that included cast-iron toy trains.
The practice became more widespread after World War Two, when companies like Lionel and Marx began linking marketing campaigns to the holidays, said Morrison, whose passion for Christmas memorabilia and model trains led him to open his museum 20 years ago.
Parents tended to buy model trains as special Christmas gifts because they were expensive, and they also took up a lot of space, said Morrison.
“Most of the trains were just put out at Christmas,’’ he said. “They weren't toys that were played with every day.’’
St. Louis train collector John Brophy is one of the volunteers who build the annual holiday train exhibit at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County. It’s the region’s largest indoor model train display.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Brophy stood at the controls of a massive display named for the late philanthropist E. Desmond Lee, who funded it. The layout can run 16 trains, ranging from Thomas the Tank to vintage Lionel trains with their unmistakable whistles.
It’s a labor of love for the volunteers, who are mostly “grey hairs and no-hairs” in their 60s and 70s, Brophy said, chuckling. Their reward is seeing how much people of all ages still enjoy watching model trains.
“The day after Thanksgiving, we had well over 2,000 people,’’ he said. “They were four deep around our train layout.”
The museum's exhibit includes a train layout that was once in the window of the old Famous-Barr/Macy’s store in downtown St. Louis.
Brophy, a retired high school band director, jokes that in his next life he’d like to be a train engineer.
“When I grew up in the ‘50s, Lionel trains were the big thing — Lionel and American Flyer,’’ he said. “We’d go down to Famous-Barr downtown and look at the window. We’d go up to the toy floor and they'd have all the trains set up and running. Our whole baby boomer generation grew up with trains. Unfortunately, that’s faded a little bit because of things like video games. But little kids love it. Thomas the Tank Engine has helped us out a lot.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard