For Santa's Castle curator, Christmas comes early

Monday, October 1, 2012

As the days grow shorter and cooler, the interior of Storm Lake's historic Carnegie Library takes on the appearance of Christmas - after an explosion.

Pieces of animated characters, motors and decorations are everywhere, waiting for placement and final touches. Curator Ron Stevenson has been working on a completely new design for the Santa's Castle attraction since February, with a brief break for the worst of the summer heat, but now, the process is shifting into frenetic full-speed-ahead gear with less than eight weeks until the Thanksgiving Day opening.

This year's design will be built around the tenth anniversary of the Santa's Castle Model Railroad, with a second railroad layout added in the lower level.

Engineer Burt Bonebrake will be retiring from full-time Castle duty, after putting in some 3,800 volunteer hours establishing the railroad and running it for thousands of enthralled youngsters and adults.

"The brain still runs pretty fast, but the chassis is getting squeaky," Bonebrake laughs of his decision to step down. "I've enjoyed most every minute of it. The cooperation from the Castle board and Storm Lake United has always been super, and I've met so many terrific people working here."

A special event will be held at the public library Sunday, October 14, to honor Bonebrake. At 1:30 p.m., railroad expert and author Rudy Daniels will give a lecture on the history of railroad mail service, dressed as a classic Milwaukee Road conductor. The lecture is free to the public and refreshments will be provided. Following the lecture, the public is invited to a preview of the train room and new layout at Santa's Castle and to help recognize Bonebrake, 3-5 p.m.

Bonebrake will still be attending the Castle part tine. Butch Ivers will take over as head engineer.

Santa's Shop in the Castle is also being expanded this year with lots of new products, including steam train handmade wood puzzles, wind-up and friction toys - all the way up to a classic 1938 Lionel train set valued at $1,200, donated by Dr. A.A. Stephan.

A centerpiece of this year's layout will be the first piece of animation Storm Lake ever obtained - a reindeer and elves scene with a sleigh. The scene has not been displayed in years, residing in storage in bad condition. It has been restored with new faces created from a mixture of plaster and paint, broken parts repaired and a needed "sponge bath."

The animated characters in the Castle were tracked down over a number of years in dusty department store attics and basements. In the age before television, they were handmade by talented craftsmen, and once entertained in the storefront windows of large city department stores, for amazed children to watch with their noses pressed against the frosty glass. The local collection dates from the 1920s to the early 1960s and is considered virtually priceless.

Ron Bue, a retiree volunteer, has been restoring broken electric motors on many of the characters this season.

Each motor is different, with different ratios, cogs and angles, making the task quite conplex. With the repairs, at least seven characters that have not been seen in many years will be returned to the layout, including a dog so realistic you have to look twice to realize it is a machine - with turning head and wiggling ears run by multiple motors.

For Stevenson, the challenge of curating the Castle is to utilize the characters in new ways and new scenes each season. "Who wants to come and look at the same thing year after year? It always has to be new."

A lot of work remains to be done. Volunteer groups are especially needed to "adopt" and decorate a forest of Christmas trees, with about 20 trees remaining to do. Stevenson hopes to create something of a "maze" of trees.

More "Santa's helpers" are always needed, although the Castle has a corps of about 20 volunteers to portray the holiday hero.

Other features this year will include a barnyard made up of older animal characters. Some of the pieces were in such bad shape that some parts had to be borrowed from the most damaged scenes to repair others, such as an elaborately feathered owl that will operate for the first time in perhaps a generation or more.

"Last year we set out a jar for donations to help get the owl working, and when the season was over we were shocked to find we had $400," Stevenson says.

Sadly, other pieces have gone missing over the years. Stevenson points out a display of stylized full-size reindeer in a photo from the beginnings of Santa's Castle. Of 12 characters in the set, only one reindeer remains, Rudolph, and it has been damaged by a haphazard repair job earlier.

The Castle will go old-school with sound this year as well, installing an old record turn-table on loan from Honey-Kissed Pizza. Stevenson hopes people will bring in their old vinyl Christmas albums. "We want that kind of scratchy sound you only get from real records - it just sounds so Christmasy," he says.