Hooked on Christmas

Above: A Vietnam-era helicopter that also saw service in the Persian Gulf War is on display along with a Sassy Racing engine built in Weare and a Cog Railway car and engine.

When Eddie and Beth Gilbert “deck the halls” each year, hanging boughs of holly are among the least of their challenges. Over the past 23 Christmas seasons, the Gilberts have decorated and displayed helicopters and a horseless carriage, stagecoaches, locomotives and a logging camp. They have placed about 100 lighted Christmas trees around planes, ships and motorcycles. They have spruced up a maple sugar farm, a cranberry harvest, dozens of antique sleighs, sleds and carriages and a workstation where Santa and his reindeer are preparing for the great rooftop ramble on December 24. The Gilberts’ “hall” covers nearly 100,000 square feet in a series of interconnected barns attached to their home at the end of a dirt road in the quiet rural town of Mont Vernon. Welcome to the Beaver Brook Farm and Transportation Museum.

“Obviously we do not ‘undecorate,’” says Beth, in a world where animated beavers are forever clad in Christmas scarves and hats in a miniature “logging camp.” Neither Santa nor his reindeer require a change of wardrobe from one Christmas to the next, but the Gilberts still had their hands full getting new exhibits ready for this year’s opening. There is, for example, an entire 19th-century village to fill up, with a general store, a cobbler’s shop, a western-style saddle shop and a ladies’ clothing store. Other exhibits, new this year, were already complete as the Gilberts prepared for another wave of visitors to their scenes of Christmas Past.

“It’s fun to see families come through the door,” says Eddie, the town’s part-time building inspector and co-owner with Beth of Minuteman Repair, a power tool business in Arlington, Mass. ”And when you hear the little kids go, ‘Wow!’, they literally go into sensory overload because they can’t believe what they’re seeing.”

Above: Right: Beth and Eddie tweak an animated Santa display called Smith Station.

There are life-size replicas of a village blacksmith and his apprentice, and sled dogs and their driver at an ice-cutting operation. The aerospace exhibit, new this year, includes a Cessna 152, a Pitts biplane, some Piper Cubs and a Ranson R-122 helicopter. “All of these are set up so the kids can climb right in,” says Eddie, a former aircraft mechanic. “And if everything goes well, we’re going to have a head set linked to the Nashua Airport, so the kids can listen to the traffic tower.”

They can also view a variety of aircraft engines, including one of the first jet engines ever produced at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Mass. One floor below is a 57-foot long Iroquois helicopter that was shot down in Vietnam and later rehabbed and used in the Persian Gulf War. There’s a lot of history in the Gilberts’ barns and all but the very youngest of visitors are certain to absorb some of it.

“We trick them into learning,” Eddie smiles. “They don’t realize they’re going to school, but they are.” The vast array of Americana assembled by the Gilberts is the natural result of the marriage of two lifelong collectors. He grew up on his family’s farm in Lexington, Mass., where he developed an interest in old engines that had run everything from cream separators to tractors. Today he can’t tell you how many tractors he has on his Mont Vernon property.

“I never counted them all,” he says. “Let’s put it this way: I sold 20 of them off this spring and it looks like I haven’t sold any.” One tractor prominently displayed inside the museum is the giant dragster Beth drives two or three times a year in tractor-pull competitions. Children are encouraged to sit at the wheel and get a feel for what it’s like to be atop the big machine.

Railroad locomotives and cars sit on a real track outside, where youngsters can take rides in the summer months around the Gilberts’ 17.5-acre tree farm. Inside is a locomotive built by the former Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester and used on the Cog Railway on Mount Washington. Sitting next to it on the makeshift track is the first coach ever built by the Ranlett Company in Laconia. “This particular coach is the coach Ulysses S. Grant went up Mt. Washington on,” Eddie notes. Today children climb aboard and listen while Santa or the train’s conductor reads them the Christmas tale of “The Polar Express.”

Old-fashioned sleds with wooden runners, about 35 sleighs, some dating back as far as the 18th Century and 15 carriages are displayed in various locations throughout the barns. “It’s kind of like potato chips or chocolate chip cookies,” Eddie says of the appetite for gathering collectibles. “You know you can’t eat just one.”

Seafaring adventures are also represented at Beaver Brook. Harpoons, ropes and other whaling equipment are featured in an open ship, with a life-sized captain perched proudly atop his ocean-going vessel. Beth recalls growing up in Dartmouth, Mass., and visiting the whaling museum in nearby New Bedford. That further spurred an interest in collectibles that began with sets of china, crystal and other tableware.

“I would go out to what my mom called junk shops,” she says. “The very first thing I bought was a silver napkin ring back when I was in high school. That’s what got me started.” Many of the figures in the exhibits are dressed in 19th Century Victorian-era elegance, reflecting another of Beth’s hobbies. “I always sewed and was into things related to clothing.”

Outfitting the characters in the display is part of the fun, she says. “I love setting them up and keeping everything appropriate to the era.”

The Gilberts moved to Mont Vernon 1983 and opened their museum two years later. Aside from the lengthy commute to their business in Arlington (about an hour and a half each way), their travels are all museum related — to an antique shop in Maine, an auction in New York or in search of Civil War memorabilia in Pennsylvania or Maryland. A prairie wagon that was on the battlefield at Gettysburg in 1863 is among the historic pieces that the Gilberts have brought back to Mont Vernon.

“It’s really like a giant treasure hunt,” says Eddie. “That’s the fun of this.” He recalls the time an elderly man from Cape Cod wanted to give away an early automobile, a “horseless carriage” that had been in his barn for decades. The Gilberts made the trip and came back with a 1901 Ford motor carriage, with its tiller bar for steering, the engine underneath and a flat-link chain running down to the rear axle.

“Some pan out and some don’t,” Eddie says of the trips. “Some of them turn out to be wild goose chases,” he says. “But for the most part, even the wild goose chases are fun.”

There is also a display of uniforms worn in all of America’s wars in a military exhibit that includes the bullet-pocked windshield from the helicopter on the main floor. “I want (people) to understand there’s a price to be paid for what they take for granted,” says Eddie, whose older brother was killed in Vietnam. The bullet holes are a reminder, he says, of “somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, somebody’s husband or son that’s not coming home.”

Though they will schedule school field trips and other special visits at other times of the year, the Gilberts open the museum to the general public for a brief time at the end of each year. This year it is open from 11-4 on Sundays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Admission is free.

“It’s very costly,” Eddie says about even the short period of time the museum is open. “Can you imagine what it costs to heat these barns? And on an average weekend, we probably replace 200 or 300 Christmas bulbs, simply because there are so many of them.” Electric bills run into the thousands of dollars per month, he says.

About 30 volunteers help out in setting up the displays, serving as tour guides and manning the snack bar. The Christmas theme runs through the museum, with Yuletide decorations surrounding the exhibits and holiday music following the visitors throughout the tour. An old-fashioned gift shop features a wide variety of figurines, trinkets and the kind of small wooden toys that filled Christmas stockings long before there were video games and iPods to keep children amused.

“A lot of families have made this part of their Christmas tradition,” says Beth. The sites and sounds of Christmases past helps strengthen the ties between generations, she says. “I remember one gentleman, when he saw one of our sleds with wooden runners, said ‘Look! I haven’t seen one of those since I was a boy! It was in my grandfather’s shed.’ It was heartwarming. Everyone in the group was enthralled, listening to him.”

“There’s something here for everyone, regardless of age or where you came from,” says Eddie. “If you haven’t got the Christmas spirit by the time you go out the door, you’re either dead or you are Ebenezer.” NH

Above from left: The transportation theme is continued upstairs with several small planes, including a Cessna and Piper Cub. Eddie, a pilot, landed the helicopter on the platform and the structure was built around it.

A Conestoga wagon that completed a modern-era trip across the States is on display along with frontier items and a Remington bronze sculpture.

Above: Christmas displays from big-city department stores have been reinstalled here and give the museum its Christmas-Past charm.

A full-size carousel is installed in one room, but it no longer gives rides.

Eddie sits in Santa’s chair, a chair he once sat in as a child. He won the chair in an auction after Dolly Parton backed down. She heard Eddie’s story and felt it should go to him.

The old Cog train from Mt. Washington was taken apart and transported to Mont Vernon in many trips by Beth and Eddie.

By the Numbers

Visitors each year: 10,000

Cost to get in: $0, but donations are accepted

Barns with displays: 7

Square feet: approx. 80,000

Christmas trees: 100+

Bulbs replaced each weekend: 200-300

Sleighs: 35-40

Horse-drawn carriages: 20

Covered wagons: 2

Helicopters: 2

Fixed-wing aircraft: 5

Hot air balloons: 1

Jet engines: 7

Full-size locomotives: 5

Full-size train cars: 6

Volunteers to put up displays: 30

Beaver Brook Farm & Transportation Museum
Christmas Festival
Open between Thanksgiving and New Year’s
Santa from noon-4 p.m.
Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
(603) 673-9001