Montana towns have Christmas traditions,
including parades of lights, decorating contests
and community bazaars.
In Forsyth, however, two businessmen have built
on their love of nostalgia to create displays
that have drawn holiday visitors to their stores
for as many as 25 years.
The longest-running display, located at Carquest,
is an electric train layout, complete with
miniature buildings including barns, colonial
houses and covered bridges.
Mike Blakesley, who manages the store owned by
his father, Bruce, has been putting the display
together, with help from his friend Ray Deering,
since the early 1980s.
"O-gauge" trains range in age from the
50-year-old Lionel set he inherited from his
grandfather to a more recent acquisition, a
"Polar Express" engine and coal car he received
for his birthday a couple of years ago. His
grandfather's train was the beginning of the
display, which has grown exponentially over the
Glen Blakesley bought the train in 1956 and
would set it up in his bar, Blakesley's Cigar
Store, each Christmas. The
green-and-red-accented train originally circled
the Christmas tree Blakesley decorated each
buildings, including a scale model of Forsyth's
Roxy Theatre, create a streetscape that recalls
downtown Forsyth in the 1940s. The downtown
structures were built from scratch by Ray
Deering, who also constructed the table under
The four sets of trains running on more than 500
feet of track pull various cargo - refrigerated
box cars, tankers and flatbeds hauling farm
equipment. While the trains were originally
controlled by board-mounted transformers and
switches, Blakesley has converted to a wireless
remote system. With the remote, he can operate
track switches, control the speed and direction
of trains, and stop or start any of them from
the parts counter in the store.
It takes about two weeks of evenings and
weekends to put the display together. The trains
come mostly from a store in Denver, but the
buildings come from wherever he can find them,
including a couple of craft stores in Billings.
He has also acquired some from stores he has
visited in places as far away as Florida.
Mike Blakesley said he has "model train fever,"
and his eight engines and 60 cars prove his
dedication. He concedes that his collection
would pale in comparison to those of others, but
he isn't finished yet.
The display draws visitors from the area each
year, and Blakesley said he gets the most
questions from kids. Forsyth is a railroad town,
so he has to pay attention to the way he
configures his trains. Veteran railroaders have
corrected him about the proper placement of
tanker cars for safe transportation and the way
equipment is loaded on freight cars.
A few blocks away, at Clark Hardware, Cal
MacConnel has a collection of 104 buildings that
create a miniature village. The display fills
all four of the windows in his store, and he has
30 other buildings he hasn't yet incorporated
into the scene. MacConnel, who purchased the
business in 1988, has been building the display
since a former employee noticed that Ace
Hardware listed the buildings in their wholesale
catalogue and talked him into buying a few. That
was seven years ago, and he has added to the
collection every year.
"I almost wish they would quit offering them,"
MacConnel said, "because maybe then I'd quit
His town includes homes, barns, windmills and
businesses - but no jail.
"Someone came in a couple of years ago and
wanted to buy a miniature of a jail for a friend
who is a police officer," he said. "But I told
her this is a happy town; we don't need a jail."
Also included in the tiny town is a harbor, made
from a highly polished mirror. It's home to
several boats and a pier. The display not only
brings locals to the store to see what he has
added each year, but it also often brings people
such as a couple who came from Miles City on a
recent Saturday. The husband, whose sales route
includes Forsyth, brought his wife to the store
so she could see it.
One of the caretakers of the Christmas display
is Clark, a mild-mannered tomcat who lives in
the store and greets all the customers,
especially those willing to offer a well-placed
scratch. When MacConnel acquired Clark about six
years ago, the cat would walk among the
buildings, look in the windows and occasionally
pick up one of the tiny residents of the town
and fling it into other parts of the store.
MacConnel has managed to break Clark of that
Neither Blakesley nor MacConnel plans to quit
adding to their collections, but room and time
are always a concern. The use of valuable sales
space during the peak season and the weeks that
go into preparing the displays include a lot of
tedious details, but the admiring looks of the
kids - and the kids at heart - seem to make all
the work worthwhile.
Note: A couple of
small changes were made in this article to
correct a couple of small factual errors and
supply more information.