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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Burr Homestead Gets Magical Makeover

Burr Homestead Gets 
Magical Makeover:
Annual Christmas Tree Fest 
offers decorative delights
(Appeared on 12/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – ‘Twas three weeks before Christmas and all through the homestead, not a wall was left bare nor even a bedstead.

The scene was the historic Burr Homestead on Old Post Road and the event was the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival, a three-day affair coordinated by the non-profit group of the same name which, for 29 years, has been hosting this special sale of spectacular, one-of-a-kind handmade holiday décor.

Passing through the heated, space tunnel-like tenting at the front of the mansion, visitors emerge into a wonderland of treats, not only for the eyes, but for all the senses. Holiday greens appear to have occupied every nook, the smell of warm apple cider drifts in the air and, on the morning of Dec. 4, the melodic tones of the Coastal Chordsmen enhanced the setting.

The Festival kicked off Dec. 2 with a preview party, featured a children’s event Friday, Dec. 3, and today offered a lady’s tea, evening wine tasting and Diane Smith signing her book “A Connecticut Christmas.”

Each year, according to former Fest board chair Patricia Gardner, a different organization is chosen as a beneficiary and receives all the proceeds from the event. Groups apply for the honor and its members help with set up. This year, the Burroughs Community Center on Fairfield Ave. in Bridgeport was selected.

Burroughs Board Member Karen Maloney, who is also co-chair of this year’s event and was responsible for seeking underwriting support, explained that the group serves the immediate community, with a focus on 5th through 12th grade students. It offers after-school programs, tutoring, summer travel opportunities and English language learning. Notably, the Center is collaborating with Fairfield’s Wakeman Boys and Girls Club to open in spring 2011 a gym, the Smilow Burroughs Boys and Girls Club, onsite.

Maloney noted that 17 different rooms and areas throughout the home had been filled from floor to ceiling with custom décor fashioned by a small band of talented ladies that had volunteered their skills for the cause. Items included full-sized Christmas trees, tabletop trees, garlands, boutique items, Nutcrackers and ornaments. “Any decorative accessory you can imagine for the holidays,” she summarized, “and in a wide range of styles from very dramatic to less formal, some child-focused.”

Jennifer Bartlett, the decorating chair, website chair and a Fest board member, mentioned that every year has its own theme and this year it is “Community.” Bartlett coordinates all the design work, taking supply orders from the designers and purchasing from wholesalers all the raw materials – every sprig, every ornament. “Then I watch them transform everything into their incredible creations,” she added.

All completed décor is then price tagged and displayed throughout the house in the many different settings – a living room, den, children’s bedroom, parlor, etc. All the items stay intact until the conclusion of the Fest at 4p.m. on Dec. 5, when visitors can then come to pick up their purchases.

Maloney mentioned that the children’s bedroom took nine full days to decorate and includes in the center of the room an antique carousel on loan from the Beardsley Zoo.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa, and he was on hand, too, to receive the junior set in the second floor hallway. One Santa visitor was 11-week-old Freddy, whose parents had recently bought a home in Fairfield. Mom Jamie said, “We came to get Freddy’s first picture with Santa, but also to support the Burroughs Center and get in the Christmas spirit.”

Browsing downstairs, Cathi Curioli of Norwalk said, “It’s my first time here. There are so many beautiful things to look at. Amazing. Beautiful. I just finished redoing my house so am looking for fun stuff to put in it.”

Staff, like volunteer and Southport resident Teale Stevens, one of 40 or 50 volunteers onsite at any given time, were just glad to be playing a key part. “I like to help out and give back to the community.”

Others like Kallen, 22, and mom Katherine Knetzger were just bubbling over with holiday spirit.

“It’s so happy here. I don’t want to leave,” gushed Kallen.

“We’ve come here since she was a baby. The tradition continues!” chirped Katherine.

Holiday Train Show Fun for All Ages

Holiday Train Show Fun for All Ages
(Appeared on 12/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Giant wreaths, garland snaking around ceiling joists, twinkling lights and, of course, miniature trains chugging along loops of track through detailed town settings. It was a feast for the eyes and a delight for young and old, signaling the start to the holiday season.

The site was the Jacky Durrell Meeting Hall at Fairfield Museum and History Center on Beach Road and the occasion was the Dec. 3 opening night of the Holiday Express Train Show. This was the fourth consecutive year of the event and the two teams of model train hobbyists that had participated in the past – the Connecticut G-Scalers Model Train Club and the Housatonic Model Railroad Club – were on hand once again.

The two groups had spent the past week building their respective set-ups from the ground up, starting with platforms and tabletops upon which they placed industrial carpet, track, trains, cottony snow and all the intricate town elements to complete the scene.

The more expansive of the two sets occupying the room belonged to the G-Scalers. In all, there were four working trains, including one pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine and a second by Percival. The trains skirted 17 individual buildings, some as tall as two feet. Two dozen mini pine trees dotted the landscape. Over 50 mini human figures interacted in and around the structures. A dozen mini-scale autos were parked on town streets. Mini figures of bear, dogs, cats, cows, sheep and pigs appeared here and there. Standing at the head of it all, there was a fully decorated Christmas tree with presents beneath it and a Menorah with blue glowing lights.

Anchoring the opposite site of the room, the Housatonic group’s set-up included two working HO trains circling a double loop through two fully populated town settings with a similar collection of elements to that of the G-Scalers’.

A third set – a Lionel O-Scale train – traveled a simple loop on a high platform in the center of the museum’s lobby.

“This brings back memories of Christmas morning, 1958,” said Fairfielder Charlie Lambert, visiting with his wife Cathy. “I had an American Flyer Frontiersman… an S-gauge train on a two-rail track. I collect trains now, much to my wife’s dismay sometimes. It’s a wonderful hobby.”

As Lambert looked on, a G-scale train whizzed past. It was operated by Bill Dressler, President of the G-Scalers, who operated controls hidden beneath a Christmas box. The Wizard of Oz of mini railroads looked as delighted as those marveling at the trains, like Fairfielders Doug Hoffman and daughter Whitney.

“We’re inspired to go home and set up our trains and build some trestles. We used to set up the trains around the Christmas tree, which we’ll have to do again now,” said Hoffman, who mentioned having a G-scale set at home.

Matt DiGiovanna was another adult reliving Christmases past. The Monroe resident was on hand with grandsons Kolby, 15 months, and Kaden, 4. The grandfather owns an O-gauge HO train set, which had been his father’s.

“This is fabulous!” DiGiovanna said, swinging Kolby around for a better look at an approaching train.

“There goes Percy! And Thomas! There he goes in the tunnel!” squealed Kaden, teetering on a step stool.

Redding resident Tara Williams, with husband Patrick and son Connor, 6, was another enthusiast. “We’re big train buffs. This is the quintessential Christmas thing to do. These sets have the right spirit and size for children. We look forward to this each year. Merry Christmas!”

Streaming in from the tree lighting on the Town Green, ruddy-cheeked Riley Guarino, 7, and Della Jackson, 5, peered over a low glass partition at the HO set-up. Said Della’s mom Kathleen of the girls, “It’s amazing for them to see the trains and for me to see the excitement in their eyes, to start off the season.”

Carolers and brothers Kevin and Sean Zentner, 11 and 9 respectively, filed in behind them. “Cool! Really big!” they whooped, spotting the G-Scale trains.

Looking over the crowd of people who were clearly in merry spirits, museum program coordinator Walter Matis summed up, “This is what the season is all about.”

The Holiday Express Train Show will be on display through January 2. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit