From the calendar
Tucked away on a sleepy residential street, Schmidt's home doesn't draw much attention during the majority of the year. The miniature train tracks and small waterfall might even escape the attention of drivers not looking for them. But each December, Schmidt's yard is transformed. Dozens of lighted trees are installed, a miniature ski slope becomes crowded with tiny skiers, and a small frozen pond comes alive with little skaters. A hand-built church with stained-glass windows draws the miniature faithful while a tiny drive-in theater operates on the other side of the yard. The latter features a small LED television that shows Christmas movies nightly. But the centerpiece of Dan's Emerald Forest are the electric trains that weave their way through snow-covered tunnels and across old wooden trestles for hours each night.
"There are people who just won't miss it. They stop by year after year," Schmidt said with a shake of his head. "I certainly never expected that when I got started, but it's definitely a blessing."
While Schmidt says most of his holiday visitors are local, it's not unusual to get guests from much further afield. "We've had folks from France and other European countries. It's pretty amazing really."
Schmidt takes great pride in Dan's Emerald Forest, and while he tries not to compare his yard to other flashier holiday presentations, he sometimes can't help himself. "I admire and respect the guys who have the computer genius to program their lights in an elaborate pattern, but to me, that's not Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be a time for calm and stillness. So I let my trains do the moving, but for the most part, the rest of my display is still and silent. That's my idea of Christmas."
This year, Schmidt plans to operate his display every Wednesday through Sunday throughout December from about 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week and until 10 or 10:30 on weekends. He does what he can to make visitors feel welcome. "We build a nice bonfire every night. It really helps build a rapport with everyone and puts people in the holiday spirit. Instead of just staying in their cars or getting out for two minutes, the bonfire encourages them to stay a while and explore the entire display. "You can drive by and see it," Schmidt says. "But if you don't get out and see it up close, you're missing half of it."
The city of Overland has come to embrace Schmidt's endeavor. "In the beginning we used to try to direct traffic with flashlights. Thankfully we don't have to do that anymore," Schmidt said. "The city brings me roadblocks so I can make the street one-way during the evening. It stops the bottlenecking and allows visitors the time to really explore what we have and allows me to talk with everyone."
On the weekends, Schmidt keeps a steady supply of hot cocoa and cider on hand. In addition to his bonfire, he keeps a Fry-Wagner storage container in his yard with a heater to keep visitors warm.
There is a cost, of course, to keeping such an enterprise going night after night. But for the most part, Schmidt says the response of his visitors is payment enough.
"It's really rewarding to me to see the kids respond to what I've done. We get tour buses and limos but also people in wheelchairs and crutches coming up the hill just to see what we've done. It's pretty special."
Dan's Emerald Forest is located at 8851 Windom Avenue in Overland, Missouri. The display operates Wednesday to Sunday throughout December from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the week and until 10 or 10:30 p.m. on weekends. For more information on Dan's Emerald Forest visit www.dansemeraldforest.com or call 314-606-7569.