It usually starts with one piece that warms your heart — so say the marketing folks of Department 56, the maker of those handcrafted miniature villages often found atop dining room buffets or adding sparkle to gift shop displays during the holiday season.
While many people collect and showcase sentimental keepsakes and decorations this time of year — perhaps a small assortment of Christmas ties or a prized group of brand-name ornaments or figurines — others take things to a whole new level.
In Keller, William Dillard, 78, wins top honors in this category.
“We laugh about it, but it really is a sickness,” says Mike Goode of North Richland Hills, a fellow Department 56 hobbyist and president of the National Council of 56 Clubs ( www.NCC56.com). His pal, Dillard, he notes, “is just as sick as the rest of us. He has more trains than anybody I know.”
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As a member of a local group of collectors, the Texas Nifty 56ers, Dillard started growing his village collectibles shortly after he and his wife, Betty, moved to Keller in the early 1990s. It started with a gift from a niece: The Old Curiosity Shop from Department 56’s Dickens Collection. Within a few years, after he began growing his Dickens Village and adding pieces from the Alpine series, he says it threatened to overtake the home he shares with Betty.
“I did all this in the house, in the garage, in the bedrooms, and so on,” William Dillard says. “Betty got so put out with having no room, that she said, ‘Build a building.’ ”
And so he did. Not a shed or a snap-together tin warehouse, mind you, but a fully bricked and air-conditioned 42x20 structure.
For the Dillards, collecting hasn’t been limited to Dickens and Alpine villages. Turns out, Betty caught the bug, too. William notes that he spotted some Christmas fairies some years back in a local shop window and thought of his wife.
“I thought they were the cutest things,” he says. “... So I took about five or six home. Betty fell in love with them.”
They were the famed Mark Roberts fairies, and Betty has grown her collection to 100-plus, displaying them on a special fairy tree and on a golden Ferris wheel plus a merry go-round and large-scale model trains — and anywhere else in the house she can find a spot.
“I get my building out back for the village, and she gets the house,” the husband says with a laugh. “It works out pretty well.”
Building a collection
Remembering how The Old Curiosity Shop sat alone on his mantel for several years, Dillard says he didn’t just wake up one day and decide to start collecting more Christmas goodies or devoting massive amounts of time to showcasing the results. After he retired, he says, he decided to make a little vignette, visited a holiday store in Fort Worth and spotted what he calls his first “setup.” A store clerk shared some information about the Department 56 collections and he says he recalls asking her, “Oh man, this is what you get into?” Soon enough, he’d been invited to a Texas Nifty 56ers club meeting, and began learning the ropes.
A highlight of Dillard’s education was meeting Ed Speakmon, a retired mechanic and Keller resident who, in the past eight years, has become well-known in the city for his elaborate Christmas light setups and penchant for taking top honors in the city’s annual holiday lighting contest. (Read more about Speakmon, Keller’s own “Mr. Christmas,” on Page .) If Dillard is a prince among Department 56 collectors, Speakmon is king, with his interior zones delightfully, dramatically and elaborately adorned with Snow Village and Winter Silhouette collections. Spreading Christmas cheer appears to be his specialty as he’s been helping others with their displays for years.
“It’s a six-month process of building it up,” says Dillard. First, there’s the construction of wooden platforms — all created by hand. And each year, adjustments are made, such as cutting down the frames for better visibility. He houses Department 56’s “first original seven” on one shelf and notes that this cluster of collectibles is in high demand.
“The Norman Church is worth around five grand because they only made around 12,000 of them,” he says. He knows this thanks to the industry bible, Department 56 Village D-tails: A Reference Source and Secondary Market Guide, 3rd Edition. Another grouping includes historical pieces such as Westminster Abbey — Dickens was buried there, and Dillard is a collector of all things Dickens, including many first editions — plus the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.
“There are waterways in here that are a little bit difficult to see when they’re higher up,” he explains.
He says Speakmon handles much of the Styrofoam shaping, building mountains and water features (molds filled with epoxy), then figuring out wiring issues — a remote controls the whole interconnected system, of course — and helping with the display’s ever-essential trains.
“The big thing in the past couple of years is movement,” Dillard adds. “That was my original intention in putting trains in, because as you look at the trains and watch them, you see other things that you wouldn’t see every time. Now Department 56 is making things that have movement in the buildings, for example, dancers.”
At the Heart of It
Once Dillard gets to talking about his Christmas village, other reasons for his nostalgic passion for trains and tiny German villages come to light. Having immigrated at age 12 to America after World War II with his father, he was Jewish, German and feeling lucky to have arrived stateside in 1947. The good fortune didn’t hold, however.
“My father passed away there at Ellis, and I almost got sent back,” he says.
Becoming a part of the 1950s early foster-care process, he says he lived with a couple of different German families. Meanwhile, a college friend of the head of Social Services in New York, located halfway across the country in Tulsa, had an interest in adopting, and didn’t want a baby. Her New York friend brought Dillard to Oklahoma for a visit and a “trial run,” then he returned to New York for a while. Happily enough, it was just a delay, and eventually, his soon-to-be new mom came back for him, and William was adopted by the Dillard family. (Yes, those Dillards. William’s “Uncle Tom” founded the company in 1938.)
They traveled by train through St. Louis to Tulsa. “And my life changed,” he says.
All these years later, he finds that giving back and helping kids is a theme that’s easily integrated into his village-building efforts. Dillard and several other Texas Nifty 56ers help Speakmon set up village and train displays at the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth.
“Children like that more than anything,” Dillard says. With pieces bearing names such as Northern Lights Depot, Elves Bunkhouse and Reindeer Barn, it’s no wonder why. The Dillards also share their joy of Alpine villages, trains, fairies and the Christmas spirit with others by hosting an open house in mid-December for friends, family and neighbors.
“All of these things are a joy for us,” Dillard says. “... It’s memories.”