St. Paul’s best-kept Christmas secret

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From the outside, it looks like any other slightly neglected railroad building.

The paint is peeling, the letters are fading, and there is an old bus parked out the front.

But remember the old adage – don’t judge a book by its cover. Once you step inside the Jackson Street Roundhouse, you are transported to a magical Christmas wonderland filled with bells, whistles, flashing lights and an intricate Lego train layout featuring Mount Fuji, a fairytale European city and an underground forest.

To catch up with Santa and St. Paul’s very own Polar Express, pay a visit this weekend. The jolly man and his wife make their final stops at the Roundhouse this Saturday and Sunday at 10.30am.

Entrance costs $10 for adults, $8 for children or $35 for a family (two adults and two to four children).

For more details, call (651) 228-0263 or log on to www.trainride.org

The Roundhouse, tucked away a mere two blocks from I-35E on Pennsylvania Avenue, St. Paul, is home to the Minnesota Transportation Museum.

A fun place to visit year-round, the museum really pulls out the stops in the run-up to Christmas.

The locomotives, cabooses and train cars on display are decked out in Christmas lights, tinsel and the occasional wreath, and staff dress up as elves.

The Lego train layout is a seasonal highlight, on display at the Roundhouse throughout December. It comprises more than a million bricks, so there’s a lot to look at, and it fascinates and delights children and adults alike.

A subterranean layer to the layout means pint-sized kids can see underground trains whizzing past their noses, without Mom or Dad having to hoist them onto their shoulders.

“It’s a lot of fun,” enthuses John Kelly, a member of the Greater Midwest Lego Train Club which stages the layout.

“The layout used to be a lot smaller, but when Lego opened its store at the Mall of America, all of us Lego freaks found one another, because we all worked there at one time or another.”

The layout on display at the Roundhouse was made up five years ago. It’s under a constant process of redesign, and never looks the same twice. When it’s reconstructed at the club’s next show, the town’s Main Street will look different as the buildings may be erected in a different order, and there could be new mountains or lakes added in.

This time next year, the club hopes to have a Lego model of the Jackson Street Roundhouse and turntable included in the display.

After the children have spent an age examining the Lego world, there’s yet another extra-special surprise still in store.

At 10.30am, on the back of a festive red and white caboose, Santa Claus and his wife Mrs. Claus pull into the train yard, waving merrily and jingling their bells.

Children watch, breathless with excitement, as the jolly pair step off the caboose and make their way over the snow to the line of waiting kids, hugging each one and wishing all a merry Christmas before heading inside for the serious business of listening to youngsters’ seasonal wish lists.

“It’s so fun to be Santa. It’s really great when the kids are 30 to 40 feet away from you, and see you ahead of them and they just come running straight at you,” says the volunteer who plays Mr Claus.

He insists his name is Santa Claus, and gives his address as the North Pole. When pushed on the subject, he concedes that he might vacation in Minnesota. It must have been a tactic he learned at Santa School, because this Mr Claus spent two days this summer at the International University of Santa Claus, which held a workshop in Minneapolis teaching dozens of attendees how to be a better Santa, the history of the Clauses and various other tips.

Roundhouse Santa made his debut two years ago, after receiving comments from three random strangers at the 2006 State Fair that he should consider the role (the long white beard probably helped).

“I figured after three Santa Claus hits at the State Fair in one year, I should probably look into it,” he explains.

Santa and Mrs Claus are ably assisted at the century-old Jackson Street Roundhouse by dozens of other volunteers, some dressed as elves, some dressed in traditional conductor garb, and others dressed simply for the icy December temperatures.

The MTM has about 500 members, and 100 of those are active volunteers, educating visitors about the trains on display and maintaining and driving them.

“Without the volunteers, we couldn’t do it,” says Patricia Kytola, the museum’s director. “I’m paid full-time and we have one other person on 20 hours, and everyone else is a volunteer.

“People get involved because they love trains and they love machinery.”

One volunteer whose dedication no one could question is that of the railroad superintendent Dick Kolter, who has been involved with the MTM for 15 years.

Every weekend, he makes the 226-mile round trip from his home in Winona to the Jackson Street Roundhouse to maintain the trains and educate the public about them.

“With the price of gas, you know, you have to be dedicated,” he says with a wry smile.

“It’s nice to see people happy, doing what they are doing. That part is always interesting. I like most to be the conductor on the train and to see the people.”

Kolter’s interest in trains stems from a young age.

“I have always had an interest in trains, but my career was as a school teacher and administrator,” he explains.

“As soon as I was old enough to ride my bike, I used to go and watch the trains.”

Now, he spends at least one full day a week at the Roundhouse, leaving Winona early in the morning and not returning until dark.

Another dedicated volunteer is John Hotvet, who has been educating visitors about the displays for three years. His father before him joined the MTM 40 years ago, and his wife and son also volunteer, so it’s a real family affair.

He tells visitors about one luxury train car of its day.

“This was the R.V. of the day,” he says, gesturing around the interior. “People would buy them for themselves. It has two beds which could fold down to make beds on either side, and bathrooms and even a kitchen.”

The train car in question passed from lumber company president to railroad company president to automobile company owner, and was even put into service as a rather unusual lakeside cabin, before ending up at the Jackson Street Roundhouse.

As all the volunteers do, he brings to life the decades of history behind the exhibits, making the visit a treat for all the family.

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