MILTON, Ga. – For Richard Thoresen, Christmas without his vintage Lionel trains and villages radiating out from his living room Christmas tree – well, it just would not be Christmas.
Thoresen’s Christmas tradition of setting up his trains under the tree borders on an obsession that has gone on 50 years now. But it is one he loves to share with family and visitors who come to visit and get one of Thoresen’s personal tours at his Bethany Road home in Milton.
“I remember my dad set up a train under our Christmas tree in 1946, and we had one ever since,” Thoresen said.
There was a brief hiatus when Thoresen was in the military. But when he married his wife Barbara in 1963, he said, “Honey, we’ve got to have a train. It’s the continuity, I guess. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without my trains.”
And so it began. One train is now nine (but only six are running this year) – and Thoresen is a Lionel man. Like many collectors, he only buys from other collectors. There was one Lionel AMTRAK engine and cars set he wanted to buy from another collector, but at his price.
“It took me three years to get him down from $1,000 to $600. And then he let me pay so much a month. But I got it,” Thoresen said.
It was only later that the man said that AMTRAK was the only train his wife liked. Every time he went to visit from then on, he got the wife’s cold shoulder.
Since 1963, Thoresen’s collection has grown. His tree has more than 700 ornaments, and the pieces – the figurines, houses, buildings, towers, villages – run into the thousands.
He and his wife Barbara would start in October to begin preparing the living room for 200 square feet of villages, accessories and tracks.
“I would go down and bring up all the boxes and get them organized; then she would sit in her chair and direct everything,” he said.
At 72, Thoresen missed only one year when he was in the hospital. This year has been a bittersweet Christmas because his beloved Barbara died of cancer earlier this year.
But he still loves to bring his villages to life. It is continuity. His children and grandchildren will come to see it, as will friends and neighbors.
This is not one of those exact replica dioramas perfect in every detail. This is pure Thoresen. One village is his 30-year-old, seven-building Norman Rockwell Sturbridge Village. He has 30 very collectible Thomas Kincaid buildings – but most of the villages have personal touches.
He has friends from Suches – a small North Georgia town known as the Valley Above the Clouds – so there is a Suches Village. He tells children every village has a California Raisin action figure, and then watches them have fun hunting each one down.
A miniature billboard displays a young girl, which is a photo of his daughter. He is friends with the owner of Johnny’s Pizza at Windward Parkway and Main Street in Alpharetta, so there is a Johnny’s in one of his villages.
One village is a Western village complete with vintage 1870s locomotive and an Indian nativity scene with tepee instead of manger.
“People come over and give me things just so they can say they are part of the village. I think everyone has a connection to trains. I know I sure do,” Thoresen said.