Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

December 18, 2018
Villages of Love

The Stephen and Ashlyn Garrard family of Stansbury Park find joy in becoming lost in a miniature Charles Dickens-era village 

Homes are filled with Christmas decorations during this time of year, and in one Stansbury Park resident’s home, a whole room is dedicated to a Christmas village that takes hours to set up, and several huge tubs to store.

But it brings joy to a family of five and those lucky enough to get a glimpse at the decor.

As a child, Stephen Garrard’s grandmother would read him Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” where he would day-dream about where the characters lived and streets they walked on. He imagined the time period and loved thinking about the shops, scenery, and people from a different time period. 

This love for old buildings and a nostalgic time continued to fill him into his adult years. At Christmas time, his father-in-law set out his own Department 56 Christmas village and it ignited a desire in Garrard to someday own his own village. 

“Anyone who knows anything about villages knows that Department 56 is the best you can buy,” Garrard said. “I knew I would never be able to afford this, but admired his Christmas village.” 

Living a humble college life, Garrard could only dream of someday owning a Christmas village. It was October 2000, andGarrard and his wife were living in Sandy around the corner from an ACE Hardware store. The store was filled to the ceiling with village houses, characters, carriages, and all the accessories to build an entire village. 

Garrard frequented the store to buy screws and maintenance supplies and when he did he felt like a boy in a candy store looking at all the Heartland brand Christmas villages.

“We were newlyweds and didn’t even have two pennies to rub together,” Garrard said. 

One day, the store put up a going-out-of-business sign and put everything at 75 percent off. Still, at that price, Garrard didn’t feel he could afford a village.

The ACE Hardware manager had seen Garrard frequent the store and decided to make him a deal. Garrard could buy 12 houses for three dollars each and then accessories for 50 percent off. Garrard drove home with what he calls, “my insta-village,” having spent $50. 

Still, to this day, he can pick out the original pieces that he took home. When he arrived at his apartment, his wife wasn’t happy to find out he had spent money on a spur-of-the-moment purchase. 

“We couldn’t afford anything, but we now had a Christmas village,” Ashlyn Garrard said.

They were living in a barely furnished apartment.

“I had to scrounge for tables to even have a horizontal surface to set it on,” Garrard said. 

Soon the village became a tradition. 

“I was surprised to find so much joy in being transported to and becoming lost in a miniature Charles Dickens-era village,” Garrard said. “Every year, I tried to find some way to enhance the experience.”

This included adding a moving train, which by far was the most expensive piece Garrard added to his collection. But it also was the most rewarding as he watched his young son, Chandler, enjoy the train. 

“My son Chandler, who we would later learn is autistic, became obsessed with toy trains, so naturally I added a train to the village,” Garrard said. 

Garrard’s son loved watching his grandfather’s train but was not allowed to touch it. Garrard bought one for his village and his son could not resist touching it as it neared him. This led to many broken trains and a bag full of broken parts.

“One of the things I’ve had to learn is that it is a thing, and that’s all it is,” Garrard said. “We have a lot of broken pieces.”

Garrard’s youngest, Colby, was also diagnosed with autism. One year, Colby got frustrated and grabbed all the people he could. He threw them on the ground, which caused them to break. 

“Our village didn’t have a hospital at that time,” Garrard joked. “We are now well-versed at first aid.” 

Even during July, Chandler wants to pull out the Christmas village. This year he is thrilled to see the village going up and enthusiastically waits for the village to unfold. He gets excited knowing the train will make a trip on the track through the homemade mountains. 

Unfortunately, most of Garrard’s pieces are no longer available. From 2008-10, collecting villages was a popular hobby and stores were stocked with village product. Since then, the popularity has decreased and finding village pieces for collectors has become harder.

“I feel fortunate that we collected those pieces within the time frame we did because that’s when they were available and economical,” Garrard said. 

Over the years for Christmas, Garrard would gift himself pieces, usually finding them at an Ace hardware store, KSL, or Deseret Industries. After all these years, Garrard’s wife is happy with the village and has given him pieces. Garrard is only in the doghouse now for how much storage it takes up — most of the unfinished basement.

Garrard’s other hobby includes anything to do with music and for the last three years has taught singing lessons in their home’s front room. Now their front room has transformed into their wall-to-wall Christmas village with more than 300 pieces.  

A few years ago the Garrards experienced a leak in their basement that they didn’t know about. The leak dripped on the cardboard packaging and ruined many of the outside boxes. Garrard decided if this ever happened again he wanted everything well-protected, and now stores everything in huge plastic bins. 

Setting this up in their front room required the Garrards to move furniture downstairs to make room. The foundation, lighting, and vision is created first, which according to Garrard, takes the most time. Then he begins unloading the bins. 

“The village brings joy into our home. Having our special needs kids, it is hard to find things that bring them joy, and this does,” said Ashlyn Garrard.

With their three children, Chandler, 19, Brookelle, 16, and Colby, 14, the tradition of having a village in their home has created great memories for their family. 

“I think what I find most enjoyable about the process of setting up the village, and serves as a counterbalance to the stress that often makes me question my own sanity, is that every box is like opening a present,” Garrard said. “Of course, I already know what’s inside, but each piece carries a story, involving Christmas and family memories that I replay over and over in my head.”

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