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Pinellas County's Heritage Village displays the evolution of Christmas decorations

LARGO — Christmas to-do lists and last-minute trips to the mall may be stressing you out, but it wasn't always like that.

The proof is at Heritage Village, the county's 21-acre living history museum. Through Dec. 30, visitors can step back in time when the holidays were a tad simpler.

For more than 30 years, the village's staff and volunteers have decorated for the holidays. This year, under the leadership of Toni Walker, vice president of the Pinellas County Historical Society, they've decked the halls as well as the porches and other areas of 10 of the property's 25 or so historic structures. Each is decorated according to the time period in which it was built.

The Moore House, for example, was a grove house built in 1879 and originally located near Sunset Point Road in Clearwater.

Inside, visitors can check out how pioneers in Florida first decorated Christmas trees. A simple cloth angel sits at the top of the tree filled with handmade ornaments.

The decorations are even simpler in the McMullen-Coachman log cabin, the oldest structure in the county, built around 1852. There is no Christmas tree, just an 8-inch metal star, punched out by a hammer and nail, that sits on a window sill.

"We wanted to be sure that the decorations were similar to ones the inhabitants of the particular home would put up,'' said Ellen Babb, director of Heritage Village. "And the people who lived in the log cabin were not wealthy, and Christmas trees really hadn't arrived yet in Florida.''

Step into the House of Seven Gables, however, and simplicity gives way to the extravagant.

In the two-story, Queen Anne-style home built in 1907 and originally located near Clearwater Bay, you'll have a chance to see how affluent families celebrated the holidays in the early 20th century.

In the formal parlor, a 9-foot tree filled with both handmade and store-bought ornaments sits next to an antique player piano.

"By this time, there were plenty of stores in the area, especially in St. Petersburg, to buy ornaments,'' Babb said.

Instead of the electric lights used on contemporary Christmas trees, the Victorian-style tree is dotted with more than 100 candles.

"Every time I look at those candles, I wonder about all the times fires must have occurred in houses at that time,'' Babb said. "So a bucket of water was always next to Christmas trees during that period.''

Peek inside a window of the H.C. Smith Mercantile Store, circa 1915, and you'll see a new decoration for Heritage Village: a miniature toy Lionel freight train. It includes a steam locomotive and its coal car, a flat car with a load of lumber, and a red caboose. It was sold up until 1939 in the United States.

The "Christmas'' train is one of several donated by Robert Stanton of Seminole, who volunteers in the store Saturdays. Another of Stanton's gifts to the village is a similar train displayed under a Christmas tree in the Pinellas Room, the conference room, located off the visitor center.

Stanton, 88, began collecting trains as a child in New Jersey between the two World Wars.

"This type of Lionel train is the kind I remember as a boy,'' he said. "But most of us back then had to get the smaller 'O' gauge trains which were cheaper, and we sometimes looked on the bigger ones, like the one in the window, with envy.''

As Gene Beckwith, a visitor from Ann Arbor, Mich., walked near the store, he discussed plans to return to Heritage Village with his grandson, 7-year-old Tommy Lane of St. Petersburg.

"I know he's got some sort of electronic game system that he's hooked on, but you know, I think kids his age, if just given the opportunity, would enjoy playing with toys, like the trains, we used to have,'' said Beckwith, 91.

"I'd love for all my grandchildren to come and really think how those pioneer children didn't get much at all come Christmas morning.''

>> Fast facts

If you go

What: Holiday Decorations in the Village. Heritage Village presents a festive display of trees and decorations at the living history museum's historic homes, decorated true to their time period.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 30. Heritage Village is closed Friday and Saturday and Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Where: Heritage Village, 11909 125th St. N, Largo.

Cost: Free, but donations are accepted.

For more information: Visit pinellascounty.org/heritage or call (727) 582-2123.

Pinellas County's Heritage Village displays the evolution of Christmas decorations 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 2:17pm]

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