By Stephanie Finnegan
There is a sense of satisfaction after an engineer or a real-estate mogul builds something. Personalities as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright and Donald Trump have commented on the wonders of imagining a structure and then seeing it erected and made concrete. Though Trump’s buildings are often towering over the Manhattan skyline—dripping in steel, glass, and gold—a Department 56 villager gets that same sense of “mission accomplished.” And in the case of Valerie McFadden, it’s not just a solo mission. The ebullient enthusiast is joined in her visionary outpourings by her husband, daughter, and mother. It’s a dynasty of designing.
By day, McFadden is a cook at West Holmes High School, but she’s uncovered the recipe for true contentment: follow the dreams that are in one’s heart.
“My favorite quote is ‘Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using your creativity is your gift back to God.’ I am thankful for my gift that helps to make others smile. I am not a professional villager, but in our small town I can make people happy and smile. If I’m able to bring peace, even for a season, I am happy!”
At Christmastime, McFadden swings open the doors to her imagination and sets up intricate displays at two local businesses: Kaufman Realty and the Hotel Millersburg, located in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. In addition to hosting her own home-based open houses—where 60 to 100 people can wend their way through her setups—McFadden delights in decorating the windows of these two firms.
“One year I was going to skip and not decorate the windows in town, but some people found out and called and Facebooked me! Yes, I caved in and went and put it up then. It’s fun to watch people just stand and look and smile. When we are building the village in town, people will stop and ask questions. They can’t believe what they see. Kids smiling as they look at the villages make me feel so good. But, you know, I think the adults love the village just as much!”
As a matter of fact, McFadden’s handiwork has been known to stop traffic! “The owner of the hotel heard a noise outside at around ten o’clock at night. She looked out the window and saw a lady in flannel pj’s and a housecoat parked outside the building. She had gotten out of her car and was taking pictures of the display! I later found out it was a friend of mine, who had wanted photos of the display lit up at night. She didn’t think anyone was around, so she jumped out of her car and was taking pictures!”
Warm, toasty pajamas and a soft velvet robe are the perfect accessories for viewing many of Valerie’s artfully arranged designs. They are the embodiment of Christmas wonder and wishes. As a matter of fact, before she became the proud purveyor of the setups and displaying, Valerie would lie down amid her parents’ buildings and dream.
“I always enjoyed sitting in a chair at my mom and dad’s home, or lying on the floor, and would imagine being in their villages. It was so peaceful,” the hobbyist recalls.
It was Val’s parents and their ceramic affinity that got her immersed in the collectibles world. “They had started the village 15 to 20 years ago. When they downsized because of health reasons, each of their three daughters and six grandchildren got a special-themed Christmas tree (my mom had 13 different theme trees) and I received the Christmas village and tree. That’s because I would go out each year and build the village for my parents. I have had the village for six years now and have gone from around 100 buildings to 400!” Though her collection has included other manufacturers’ buildings, her preference is definitely for Department 56 offerings.
In addition to physically expanding the buildings and accoutrements, McFadden has put a personal stamp on the towns and burgs that she envisions: “This year I added a ‘travel agent’ theme for my daughter, who is a travel agent for Bliss Honeymoons. And I added a Ford Dealership for my husband, who is an auto tech. I do a wilderness, with a climbing mountain, for my son, who is rock climber. Then there is a red, white, and blue tree with a Washington, DC, theme (the White House, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials and a Capitol Building, which I built, along with a Washington Monument, which I designed and built). I also do a lighthouse-themed village with palm trees or my seashell tree.”
Never devoid of ideas or inspiration, Valerie also tries to include a church, Nativity, Santa, and an artist in each of her displays. She challenges herself to tweak and improve her finished products each season. In her own living space, she decorates the dining room, living room, computer and family rooms with several displays. Even her bathrooms’ décor gets a single building addition.
“I don’t build on Styrofoam™ platforms. Instead, I build on furniture pieces and boxes. I would love to go to a workshop just to see platforms built, but I like the way I do it, because I can change it every year. Also, I don’t have room to store platforms,” she wisely states.
“To me, when they are set up, the displays are peaceful little villages. I would love to be able to walk through the streets and into the woods, and then go into the houses and stores. It would be visiting a slower and more peaceful time. I sometimes wish today was like how it was in the past!”
Since time travel isn’t an option, McFadden has opted for the next-best thing. She has re-created the settings and the tones of times past. Husband Charlie and daughter Hilary take an active role in building, carrying, packing, and unpacking. And, of course, Valerie’s 72-year-old mother, Harriett, has had a great deal of influence by sparking the entire collection initially.
“I always helped Mom and Dad build their villages, and my husband was always understanding. Now that we have the village at our house, he is more into it. He watches for buildings on eBay®, at antiques stores, and flea markets. It is a developing thing for us!”
In fact, one of Valerie’s most precious memories is when Charlie conjured up a little unexpected magic. “I had put it on my wish list for eBay® and went to bed. I forgot to tell my husband to look at it. I had notes on my desk telling what I would pay for it. When he got up in the morning, he looked at it, put in an offer, and went off to work. When he came home, I told him, ‘I forgot to tell you that I wanted you to bid on the stadium. Someone made an offer and got it.’ I was really sad. He sat down, turned to me, and said, ‘That person who won the stadium was your husband!’ I smiled and I cried. Charlie said my expression was priceless.”
Surprising, sensational, and satisfying—that’s what Valerie McFadden and her family’s experiences with Department 56 have been all about.