Crazy. Beautiful. Magical. Amazing.
Those are some of the words that have been used to describe the veritable winter wonderland that Bill Meagher has carefully assembled at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s headquarters in Wellesley.
Since August, the 77-year-old Needham resident has been drilling, wiring, and tinkering to create a picture-perfect miniature metropolis of illuminated holiday villages. The sprawling installation is now on display as part of Mass Hort’s annual Festival of Trees celebration at Elm Bank.
“It goes on and on and on,” said Katherine K. Macdonald, the society’s president. “There’s so much to look at. It’s really amazing.”
Meagher arranged hundreds of figurines — each less than 3 inches tall — in a variety of settings throughout the bustling villages. Some are downhill skiing, while others stroll around outside past quaint shops.
There are tiny people ice skating and couples dancing inside warmly lit dollhouse-sized homes. Little gondolas slowly inch along cables past snow-covered mountains, and model trains zip by, clattering along the tracks below. There are about 400 structures in all, including a scaled down version of Fenway Park basking in the glow of the legendary Citgo sign.
Meagher has spent countless hours placing gravel along railroad tracks, and carefully forming white cotton into snowbanks, sprinkling glitter on them to provide just the right amount of twinkle.
That sparkly snow dust can’t go near the tracks — if it does, Meagher said, “it will stop the train.”
That’s just one of the quirky lessons Meagher has learned from working with Lilliputian structures. It’s a hobby that requires concentration and creativity, dedication and devotion, and an impeccable attention to detail.
Meagher began collecting villages 20 years ago, when he was working at Arthur Andersen LLP in Boston. He bought his first Department 56 village from a shop in Faneuil Hall, and it brought back memories from his childhood. His great-uncle in Pawtucket, R.I., used to build miniature houses and light them with real candles (which was a rather risky endeavor, in retrospect: “Fire laws were different in the ’30s and ’40s,” said Meagher, with a chuckle.)
Sixteen years ago his first wife, Pat, was diagnosed with cancer, and Meagher retired from his job at Arthur Andersen to take care of her. In between the trips to Boston for her treatment, Meagher added to his collection, and when the villages started taking up too much space, he moved them into the barn in the backyard of their Needham home.
“That’s when it took on a life of its own,” said Meagher.
He continued his hobby after his wife died, assembling villages in the unheated barn until his fingers went numb from the cold.
“After she passed away, it was really therapy for me,” said Meagher.
But up until recently, only a lucky few — his friends, grandchildren, perhaps an occasional Boy Scout troop — got a chance to view the collection he had built.
That changed last year, when Meagher and his current wife, Ellen, decided it was time to bring the villages out of the barn and into the public eye for everyone to see and enjoy. Another upside: “It’s nice there’s heat.”
Meagher set up some of the villages during last year’s festival, but this year, he added even more — lots more — so the installation more than doubled in size. His creation now occupies almost the entire west wing of the education center at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank property.
“People really loved it last year,” said Macdonald. “This year we gave Bill a whole wing.”
Of course, the Festival of Trees wouldn’t be complete without, well, trees.
Elaborately decorated trees — which were donated by local businesses, individuals, and nonprofits — are on display in the Hunnewell Carriage House.
Visitors can buy raffle tickets and put them into the box near their favorite tree. On Dec. 13, the last day of the festival, the trees will be raffled off to the lucky winners. There will also be wagon rides and visits from Santa.
Festival of Trees & Snow Village
When Open through Dec. 13
Where Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Elm Bank property, 900 Washington St., Wellesley
Hours Wednesdays and Thursdays 4-8 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., except for Sunday, Dec. 13, when it closes at 6 p.m.
Admission $10 per person, $8 for members, and free for children age 11 and email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.