Of all the things to do in Barrington, there’s one event coming up tomorrow that I’m so excited to check out with our kids. The famous “Train Lady” of North Barrington is opening the fabulous train gardens on her 10-acre property to the public tomorrow, June 25th. It only happens once a year and this will be my first time getting a close-up look at one of Chicagoland’s most unique and special garden properties, right here in our own back yard.
You have to see to believe the amount of work Train Lady, Elaine Silets, has put into her private Gardens at Wandering Tree. On her property you’ll behold The Gloree & Tryumfant Garden Railway, which includes 6,000 square feet of tracks, bridges, trestles and a waterfall where water drops into a stream which flows into a lake. Talk about a feat in intricate garden plumbing!
I decided to call the Train Lady last night to get to know her a little. I’m so happy that I actually caught her on the phone. She sounds like quite a character with a charming and impressive life’s passion and I can’t wait to meet her. Elaine and her family have owned their North Barrington home for the past fifty years. They originally purchased the property as a summer getaway from their home in Chicago.
“We adore Barrington. We like everything about it. I can say I’ve called it home for 50 years and not many people can say that. About 20 years ago I came out for the summer and I just never went back. I said I think I’m just going to stay here.” Well, stay she did, and two years later she started her business, Huff & Puff Industries. Huff & Puff designs, manufactures and installs custom Indoor & Outdoor Model Railroads, Garden Railways, and Christmas Displays in all scales for private and commercial clients nationwide. And it’s Elaine, not the men in her life, who is the mastermind behind the entire enterprise.
“Everybody seems to think this is a man’s thing. This is not a man thing. This is a people thing and I happen to be very good at it. My husband was a trial attorney and he had nothing to do with it, other than moral support.”
But Elaine’s late husband, Harvey, inspired many of the gardens you’ll see if you visit Elaine’s property tomorrow. He was also a train enthusiast and Elaine built the indoor train museum on her property seven years ago to house Harvey’s model trains which are configured in a design that depicts all things Chicago. With the city skyline and lakefront as a backdrop, the indoor model trains wind around the Loop, past Millennium Park, Chicago’s museums, landmarks, neighborhoods, Wrigley Field and into the surrounding industrial and farmland beyond life in the city. The displays are interactive and visitors can push buttons to activate animations like a carousel and rockets that fire from a missile silo.
Elaine’s outdoor train gardens are truly spectacular. The train layout was started about 20 years ago. Today, the main garden railroad includes eleven half-inch G-scale model trains, some elevated, that pass through country and city settings, including a circus. “A complete railway has all of the elements, with mountains, waterfalls, schools, churches, towns, valleys, villages, streets and all kinds of vignettes designed with miniature plant materials. There’s electrical and there’s plumbing and it’s like building a house. You have to make sure it’s operating in all different kinds of climates and weather.”
As you wander through her property, be sure to look for The Shabui Garden Railway, a Japanese Water and Steam Garden. You’ll also find several rose gardens, a pool garden, a sunken vegetable garden with a captivating collection of birdhouses and the Snoopy Topiary Croquet garden that Elaine created for her three grandsons. The only challenge will be teaching my kids to look and not touch! Elaine says her railroads are very elaborate and come with quite a price tag. “I love creating the railroad. That’s the best part. I sit there and figure it out and stay up half the night sketching and doing renderings. There’s always an “Aha” moment and that’s the fun of it. That’s the challenge. But these railroads are very expensive. Our basic charge for the simplest kind of garden railway is $25,000.”
The best part is that The Train Lady has created a booming business that is her life’s passion. And that alone is as inspiring as her cheerful and charming choo choo creations. Her passion for gardening dates back to age 8, when she and her mom designed their first WWII Victory Garden and she studied the art as an adult in the gardens of France. “My business combines my garden skills, my train skills and my creative design skills. It combines everything that defines me.” If you’d like to meet Elaine tomorrow, she’ll be easy to spot. She always wears a big white cowboy hat, garden gloves and a sunny smile.
Tomorrow’s Train Lady Open Garden lasts from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and tickets cost $5 per adult. There is no admission charge for children. It’s a truly rare opportunity because Elaine only opens her gardens once a year and for a good cause. The money raised will support The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program which pays to preserve exceptional American gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public. The Conservancy chooses the 400 top private gardens in the country to participate. Elaine Silets’ garden is on the tour tomorrow along with the Fabulous Olsen Family Garden in Barrington Hills.