Born on Christmas Eve in 1949, Dennis Cannon has transformed his basement into “Forever Christmas Eve,” complete with model trains, Erector structures, antique race cars and more.
Dennis Cannon, born on Christmas Eve in 1949, keeps his “Forever Christmas Eve” trains set up yearround in the basement of his Hockessin home.(Photo: DANIEL SATO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)Buy Photo
It’s forever Christmas Eve in Cannonsburg and Cannonsville: It says so on the only way into these special places where carols are playing, Santa’s flying overhead and holiday lights are all aglow.
But the villages also sport a shark-infested pool, a daddy bear protecting his family, fireworks over Independence Hall, a carnival and a Mountie tasked with saving a damsel stuck on the tracks.
The hamlets live on in a toy train layout filling the Hockessin basement of Dennis Cannon, born on Christmas Eve 1949.
“The puffs of smoke and the smell of the engines just evoke Christmas,” he said.
The three-level, 500-square-foot layout features six gauges of trains on 700 feet of track, trolleys, Erector structures, antique race cars, houses, commercial buildings, an airport, 1,600 lights, miles of wiring powered by 2,200 watts, 300 tiny people and buttons that make 70 things happen – lights, movements and sounds.
Part of Dennis Cannon’s train setup in the basement of his Hockessin home.(Photo: DANIEL SATO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
When asked if the layout always marks Christmas, he pointed at the sign above the basement door that said “Forever Christmas Eve” and replied, “Hello, it’s forever.”
Elsewhere in the house, walls and cabinets show off many items related to miniature trains and toys – plus many seasonal Christmas items.
“It’s the only holiday we go overboard for,” said his wife, Pat.
His parents gave him his first train set when he was 3 (“I was just entranced with it, and it was the best present I ever received”), and he was newly married and in his mid-20s when he returned to trains. The couple devoted a quarter of Pat’s salary to train items as investments.
Soon he was selling and repairing trains, taking consignments and designing and building the occasional layout for others. Dennis said he has really created two collections, one of antique and collectible toys, trains and related items – mostly associated with the A.C. Gilbert Toy Co. (famous for American Flyer trains and Erector sets) and another using similar items for fun. The layout takes half the basement, and the collections today fill the other rooms in the basement and spread upstairs.
AN S Gauge train makes its way through the a town set up by Dennis Cannon in his Hockessin basement. Cannon calls the S Gauge scale his favorite, because it was the one first introduced to him by his father.(Photo: DANIEL SATO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
“The fun is in the hunt,” he said. “I like to go after the one of the kind,” such as the first color ad for a toy (Erector set, 1915), a pressboard Klondike railcar (the only one he knows of) and a 1934 device to make a Christmas tree vibrate and its icicles shimmy.
As the family grew and moved, train layouts were redone until they settled in 1987 in their current house, where the layouts are built around the heater and water heater with G, H, HO, O, S and standard tracks (the N gauge trains run under a Christmas tree).
Dennis designed the setup so pieces can be removed for heater repairs. He kept the layout low for children but high enough that he can easily crawl under for his own repairs and enhancements. The roads were kept as wide as his shoes so he could walk into the interior as well, and trap doors were built under the tunnels for whatever needs may arise.
“Train building has been called the greatest hobby,” he said, counting off the skills it showcases, like artistry, architecture, construction, electrical work and carpentry.
Born on Christmas Eve in 1949, Dennis Cannon created “Forever Christmas Eve,” complete with rare train and erector sets, in the basement of his Hockessin home.(Photo: DANIEL SATO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
From a booth, he controls the experience, sending the moon through its phases and the lights of the settlements from the commercial excitement of the evening to the quietude when everyone’s asleep. He similarly changes the sounds and train movements. And if the phone rings while he’s down there, a trackside diner lights up so he can answer it.
“On some nights when I come home from a tough day, I pour a Scotch – just one – and come down and be back in my own little world,” he explained.
A guide for visitors, a treasure hunt made to encourage curiosity and the host himself point out heartwarming bits (a grandmother and a baby rocking, a kid on Santa’s lap with his wish list, an Army guy kissing a girl) and parts of the cold, cruel world (a burning house, one of his kidney stones repurposed in a produce truck, a tree that falls on the road). Other elements show a sense of humor that tops a deep sense of faith (a spaghetti orchard, a vending machine that yields babies, a UFO that uploads a cow).
Dozens of buttons and switches fill the control board of Dennis Cannon’s train room, not only activating trains, but haunted houses, house fires, bear attacks and UFO abductions as well.(Photo: DANIEL SATO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
As an homage to his career with Weyerhaeuser, the forest products firm, there’s a lumber mill and sawmill. But where’s the hospital for Pat, the nurse?
“As a kid, it was inspirational and cool to see your dad creating,” son Doug said, adding that he was “the train robbery guy” with his G.I. Joes and X-Men on the layout. Today, he has serious day job as an anti-money-laundering analyst and keeps alive the artistry that his father instilled with movies, such as “Arrangement,” a film he wrote and directed.
Dennis was pragmatic about the future of what he has gathered and created.
“When that time passes, they’ll convert the collections into financial assets. And then they will only be measured in memories.”
Dennis Cannon often shares his Forever Christmas Eve train layout with visitors because he likes “to see a kid smile and a grandfather reminisce.” Want to share in those feelings? He plans open houses 3-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Saturday. Email email@example.com for details.
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