O Little Towns
Charming tiny villages all aglow bring immense joy to collectors
“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
dressed in holiday style…”
It’s Christmastime in the village and, oh, what a village it is.
More than 90 buildings, including toy shop, beauty parlor, library, churches, and homes, are merrily festooned with wreaths and garland, and looking all the more festive in a streetscape trimmed with snow-laden roofs, candlelit windows, and evergreen trees.
Near the greenhouse, a woman pulls a sled full of pine boughs. A child totes a bundle of firewood home. A shopper strolls past the Harley-Davidson shop with an armload of Christmas presents. Santa squeezes his girth into a chimney.
The little ceramic village with its shiny, glazed finish is so cheerful and busy you can almost hear the caped and muffed carolers singing their Christmas canticles, but it’s all in miniature and platted out in a sunroom in Brandenburg.
“It’s like a little community,” says Kay Embrey of the nearly 100-piece miniature village she has been collecting since the late 1980s.
Deck the hills
It all started when Embrey—a collector by nature (she also has eight themed Christmas trees and more than two dozen silver bells) and pharmacist by trade—bought a Department 56 Original Snow Village pharmacy building.
Founded in 1976 and inspired by an old-fashioned village decorated for the holidays, Department 56 today has a vast line of miniature collectibles, including villages, figurines, and holiday décor.
Next, Embrey bought a motel in honor of her parents, who had owned one, and then an airport because she used to fly planes.
“These are all things that remind me of my past life,” she says.
The odds and ends burgeoned into a little community with the addition of a Harley showroom and motorcycles (Embrey’s husband has a Hog) and Shelly’s Diner, so named because her grandmother was a Shelly. Scads of accessories like street signs, mailboxes, lampposts, vehicles, a wood pile, and a skating rink followed. Before long, friends and family were giving her pieces and an entire town sprang up: business and residential districts, outdoor recreational areas, nightlife options including theater and restaurants, and the all-important infrastructure with community services, including courthouse, post office, and hospital with ambulance.
Embrey created her own restaurant row with McDonald’s, a pizza joint, a drive-in, and the Wildcat Diner (that’s not Department 56 but University of Kentucky), in addition to Shelly’s Diner. Her village people include a mailman, milkman, nursery workers, choir singers, and a groom carrying his bride. Man’s best friend is not forgotten, as he lazes happily in his doghouse.
“Of course, I would never have put all this together if it hadn’t been for my husband.”
Jeff Embrey, retired district superintendent of Meade County RECC, built hills for some of the houses and for a retreat area that includes a cabin.
“It’s fun and a lot of work,” Kay Embrey says, “but so worthwhile.”
Every day is Christmas
At the Arvin household in Campbellsville, Christmas is celebrated year-round. Diana Arvin has an extensive collection of miniature holiday villages, including the Department 56 Original Snow Village, which she began collecting in 1979, and the North Pole Series from the company’s Heritage Village Collection, when Santa first made his appearance in the 1990 collection.
“I have 200 lighted buildings—50 of them in the North Pole collection—and about 300 accessories,” she says, admitting that for several years she was addicted to adding to her collection.
“I would purchase everything that came out in a given year for these two lines from Mary Anne’s Hallmark in town,” she says. “I have the entire North Pole collection up to the year 2000. Oh, and I collect the Hallmark ornaments, too.”
Eventually, Arvin forced herself to stop collecting because she ran out of room—even after her husband, Jacky, supplemented display space by making a table specifically for the bulk of her North Pole village.
With her Original Snow Village pieces, Arvin creates holiday vignettes and places them throughout her home. Eight different churches are among her favorite pieces, and at least one church goes into each large display per room. Displays can be found in the Arvins’ former dining room, now office, where cabinets were cleared to make way for 50 miniature, lighted buildings, and in the living room where the porcelain North Pole collection remains on permanent display.
“The North Pole looks like what you’d imagine, very frosty and cheerful,” she says. “I enjoy it since it is out of the way, but yet I only have to flip a light switch to turn it on and enjoy it.”
First-time visitors to the Arvin home generally react with awe at the sight of the villages and are encouraged to return during the holidays to enjoy the village communities in each room. Even the bathrooms are not forgotten: Arvin keeps a building in each one year-round as a nightlight.
“It’s nice to have a little Christmas year-round and not just for one or two months,” she says. “It’s also nice to be able to go back in time to your childhood and think of the North Pole and Santa Claus.”
Like Embrey, Arvin also puts up a stand of trees. Each Christmas she trims 19 firs that range in size from a diminutive two feet to a substantial nine feet tall.
“You do all the work and it brings a smile to other people’s faces.”
Construction begins anew each holiday season when the Hobgood family of Greenville, Indiana, hauls out nearly 20 years’ worth of village collectibles. Once unpacked, furniture is rearranged in the recreation room, the liners of paint-roller pans are taped to boxes, cookie sheets are balanced between them to create slopes, cliffs, and mountains, and an entire community comes home for the holidays.
“Ours is a hodgepodge,” says Ellie Hobgood, administrative assistant at Kentucky Living, of her pre-automobile village. The collection includes 40-plus buildings and dozens of people picked up here and there as Hobgood and daughters, Corrinne Rainville, age 26, and Megan Rainville, 24, sought to re-create romanticized versions of the country mountain village of Kodiak, Alaska, they once called home.
“Kodiak is an island and a city in the Gulf of Alaska and there’s a mountain range on the island. That’s where we were living when the collection started. We just build our own little Kodiak every year.”
Many of the buildings were purchased by Hobgood’s husband, children, and in-laws as gifts for the collector. Other pieces came by way of auction finds. Building the community is a family affair that even the cat, Sketcher, occasionally gets involved in, curling up in the park and wreaking havoc with Hobgood’s hula hoopers.
The village is constructed atop a desk, Victrola, and bar, all sheeted and layered with cottony snow. It includes a dance hall with people dancing inside, electric ski slope with a gondola going up the mountain and skiers coming down, carousel, windmill, three churches, a ship, and two lighthouses. And a secret Santa hides in the outhouse.
Village construction is typically an all-day event for Hobgood and her daughters, but as large as the village has become, the family considers it a work in progress.
“Even though we have the same houses and basic layout, it’s different each year. Putting it together is an ordeal, but it’s fun and it makes memories of the time my girls and I spend together.
“It’s like we’re living in this village we’re creating—like playing dolls.”
Kay Embrey and Diana Arvin, both collectors of the Department 56 villages, keep written inventory records of the buildings in their villages. Diana includes serial numbers and cost of the individual pieces. Keeping individual inventory records is something both women recommend to anyone amassing village (or other) collections.
Linda Kruger, executive director at the Collectors’ Information Bureau, www.collectorsinfo.com
, suggests not only keeping thorough records, but insuring the collectibles as well.
“Household policies as a rule will not cover items for collectible value, so be sure to check into collectibles policy riders or find a policy that is written specifically for collectibles.”
To help with records, Department 56, www.department56.com
, has history lists online that contain all current and retired products. The lists, current as of May 2007, include product description, year issued, year retired, and suggested retail price. A family tree displaying the company’s lines hierarchically with their year of introduction is also available.
“People have also asked if we have blueprints for the villages,” says Melinda Seegers, manager of consumer services. “We don’t.”
There are, however, directions on their Web site for constructing various vignettes with the collections.
Seegers says her best piece of advice for those asking where to begin their collections is, “Start with something that has sentimental or emotional meaning to you.”
She adds, “Start with a single favorite village collection or sub-series. Try to obtain the complete series. Older issues will be available on the secondary market, while new issues will be carried by your favorite retailer. Advanced collectors often collect whole villages and their sub-series.”
Like any collectible, the villages should be handled with care, especially fragile attachments or sections. The Collectors’ Information Bureau provides these care instructions: “Gently dust pieces with a soft brush (such as a makeup brush). If a building or accessory becomes grimy, brush lightly with a mild soap and water, and rinse carefully, without immersing. Do not place pieces in the dishwasher.”
An excellent resource and networking opportunity for collectors is the National Council of 56 Clubs, www.ncc56.com/main_frame.html. While Department 56 does not sponsor the NCC, it does support its mission, part of which is to assist in the formation of new clubs and “stimulate the presentation of collector events and gatherings.”
The trade magazine, Village D-Lights, www.VillageD-Lights.com
, provides complete listings of each series, new introductions, collector profiles, display ideas, event calendars, and more.
DISPLAYING MINIATURE VILLAGES
If your village has outgrown your home, there’s a way to display them in specialty display cases complete with electricity. Go to village display.