If the saying, “Everyone’s a kid at Christmas,” is true, Robert Reffner is the proof. And Robert and Annette’s home in Mountain Brook provides the evidence.
Eight trains are running inside the house — four are still packed away — along with a dozen Christmas trees — three musical (15 songs) — several lighted villages and nativity scenes.
Add to that the small trees not counted and the nine outside, along with three village scenes. Reffner begins in October putting the Christmas scenes up.
Of course, Reffner said, the nativity scene comes first. He said he used to have one camel, but felt like the wise men needed more camels, so he added to the number.
Inside, his trains capture the attention of visitors, especially children.
A few days ago, a friend brought over some children to get a close-up view. “They were fascinated,” Reffner said. That in itself, he added, is enough to keep it going.
But his wife knows it’s the kid in him that feeds the love of trains. Not long ago, they attended a show and his eye caught sight of a train selling for $200. “I knew you were going to buy it,” Mrs. Reffner said.
He got his first train when he was 5 — a Marx Co. set. His dad traded a coin collection for the set and built a platform for it.
Then when he was barely a teen, he saw a train in a store window he loved — kept looking at it — and then one day it was gone. Would you know? It showed up under the Christmas tree.
So it just stands to reason that trains would continue to be a major part of his Christmas. He hopes his great-grandson Landen Riley will carry on the tradition as he grows up.
Originally from Altoona, Pa., Reffner grew up with trains — literally. Tracks ran by his front yard and riding the train was the normal transportation.
Everyone had their model trains, he said. They would race them at the local YMCA to see whose was fastest.
When Reffner moved to Cleveland, he worked for the Banner 6 1/2 years in sports and as assistant managing editor. He also did sports for Lee University and worked 35 years at Hardwick Clothes.
And the man sings. As a member of a Southern gospel quartet, he appeared at Silver Dollar City before it was Dollywood.
He met and married his wife at Lee in 1961. She worked 47 years in the Church of God headquarters before retiring.
In the meantime, Reffner kept adding to his permanent train collection and it was always part of his Christmas decorations. He had platforms built in their living room for the villages and settings for the trains.
Each year, he would add on and rearrange the hundreds of cars and figurines, rotating his train sets — “not doing the same thing twice,” he said. His collection includes one-of-a-kind with a floodlight, a three-tiered car carrier and a motion-sensored popcorn machine he added for interest.
Then the Reffners moved and his wife, Annette, claimed a “formal” living room. The trains with their village and streetlights had to go upstairs.
But they’re still running through the valleys, the tunnels and around the mountains where little villages are nestled. In that fantasy world, everyone is a kid and everything is seen from a different perspective.
“Christmas is a special time — it brings people together,” Reffner said. “And at Christmastime, our focus turns to Christ.”