Once upon a time, said Mary, “Dick had aspirations to own a pub.” And so their first purchase, “The Grapes Inn,” a pub which stands about 5-inches tall, captured their imaginations. The Grapes Inn is part of a line of ceramic miniatures created by “Department 56,” said Mary, and most pieces in the LaFontaine’s collection are part of Department 56’s quaint Dickens Village series.
The LaFontaines purchased The Grapes Inn at the Carriage House Gift Shop, “which used to be where the Residence Inn is now,” said Mary. “Before we started collecting, I had no idea that all of this existed,” and for the Lafontaines, collecting pieces to add to their village has become “a shared passion. Every year we pick up one or two new pieces.”
They now own more than 60 buildings, with many more accessories.
“We’ve got areas and themes,” Mary pointed out, with “a green section that has grass rather than snow,” and a seaside section with ships, lighthouses, and a blue base creating the illusion of water.
Among the hustle and bustle of the winter village’s seaport, the LaFontaines have included the Fisheries Trading Company and an Oyster House.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, Mary has an art background and a bachelor’s degree in studio arts. She also spent some time in London, and so they have replicas of the Tower of London and Big Ben, as well as Kensington palace and several other castles. The London region, explained Mary, “is also the arts and financial district,” featuring two theaters, “because theaters are important to me.”
One of Mary’s favorite structures is a grand residence with a family inside having dinner with silverware and food on the table. Next door to it is a residence with a dance hall where they’re having a party, complete with dancers spinning gracefully about, and further on a church tower chimes every hour.
“I really feel like I lived in [something similar] in a previous lifetime,” said Mary. Many pieces are animated, and many pieces are lit – making the logistics of concealing power cords a bit tedious.
“When we’re finished,” said Dick, “the wires will all be hidden,” with power cords concealed by pathways, snow, grass, and other clever means. Ultimately, “We sprinkle freshly fallen snow over [nearly] everything.”
According to Mary, “It takes [us] weeks, literally, to finish up all of the touches.”
Some pieces, such as the Alderburg Music Box Shop, play music. Small skiers shush down a snowy slope and swans float in a quiet swan pond. There is a fishing pond, with fishermen, a fountain with a babbling brook – the only part of the display featuring real water — and a gin mill that straddles a stream with its paddle wheel dipping into the make believe waters of a canal flowing through the seaside village.
When Mary’s sister’s health was good, the sisters spent many hours antiquing, and Mary’s “Quilly Antiques” shop, another favorite, was purchased with her sister in mind.
Their newest piece, said Mary, “is a Gentlemen’s Club.”
Collectively, Mary and Dick have four adult children and nine grandkids, “and all of them really appreciate it,” said Mary in reference to the hours and energy that they put into creating their village. Although, she added, “It’s grown a lot since the kids left home.”
Over the years, they’ve received accessories – clocks, a gazebo, and other town square pieces – as gifts from the kids, friends and family members.
“There are two accessories that we get a lot of comments on,” said Mary. One is the fire pit that lights up, and all of the street lights which are also lit. “We’ve even got a polka band in the gazebo,” she said.
Mary, who has lived locally for a very long time, was sad when the Gooseberry Barn closed because it was a great resource for the winter village. “Now, whenever we’re out and about we look for Christmas shops. In Ohio this fall we found a Christmas shop with a huge display and bought some pieces there.”
When the LaFontaines shop for winter village pieces, not only do they select pieces based on their passion, energy or interests, but when it comes down to choosing between two pieces – one being new and the other retired, “We always purchase the retired piece.”
In fact, she said, “About 95 percent of what we have is retired.”
According to Dick, “Set up is 60 to 80 hours, 30 to 40 hours to take down.”
For Dick and Mary, “It’s a labor of love,” and when the village is complete, they invite family and friends to visit and enjoy.
With the display taking up nearly the entire living room, “I don’t know where I’m going to put the tree,” said Mary with a hearty laugh. “It will probably go out on the porch. I can never do anything small,” she admitted, and so the porch is, in and of itself, a significant display.
What started as three lighted trees of varying sizes and shapes soon became five. And this year? “Who knows?!” laughed Richard.