It was time to open Christmas presents, and Stu Hopfensperger handed his 4-year-old grandson one of the several wrapped gifts.
Lucas wasn’t so enthralled.
“‘Hey grandpa, let’s go run the train,’” he said.
The Polar Express encircles Hopfensperger’s Christmas village in the basement of his Port Washington home, which has literally become one of his family’s highlights during the holiday season.
As all 47 houses in the village light up courtesy of at least 50 wires, matching the glow in the eyes of Hopfensperger’s grandchildren.
Each year, Hopfensperger takes great care to set up his village, making sure each house is wired and on sturdy Styrofoam footing.
The Sheboygan native started his collection a little more than a decade ago with just a few houses, but the seed was planted years before that. Hopfensperger’s mother started a village after her seven children became adults. Her children bought her houses as gifts until she told them to stop when she had too many.
Hopfensperger’s father wasn’t as enamored with his wife’s growing community. He hated it since he had to set it up each year.
Once while his parents were on a trip, Hopfensperger went to their house and set up the village for them. His mom loved the surprise and his dad perhaps more so.
“He didn’t have to deal with it,” he said.
Hopfensperger is happy to deal with it. He started with three houses, including a jigsaw-themed one since he and his daughter love jigsaw puzzles, on top of a small desk and bought a few more each year.
“While I do this it reminds me of mom and how cool she made Christmas,” he said.
Hopfensperger said he looks for colorful homes that are unique. He has a Santa’s Operation Center with a globe on top, Nana’s Splits with a lighted cherry and a “Sesame Street” house. An ornament shop has a rotating ornament on top and a bike shop has a rotating tire.
A “Christmas Vacation” house too big to sit inside one of the rows rests at a corner of the display, complete with the station wagon and Christmas tree on top, and a figure of a man in a hockey mask with a chain saw like the character from the movie.
When Hopfensperger turns off the lights, the houses illuminate the room. The Robot Factory and North Pole Rally are among the houses that blink, and a lighthouse on the top row circles its light.
Inspiration for his setup came during his third year of his village when Hopfensperger was walking through the Detroit airport. He saw a shop that had houses on a few inch-thick Styrofoam. Hopfensperger bought a 1x2-foot pieces for $100 before he found Menards sold larger pieces for $4.99.
Hopfensperger places his houses on Styrofoam sheets on tables. He cuts pieces of Styrofoam to make shelves to allow for more houses and sight lines to be able to see them all. He punches holes in the Styrofoam to send wires to each house so they all light up.
“The goal is for you to not really see the wires or cords,” he said.
Of course houses use different bulbs, and Hopfensperger said he has a stash of replacements. A remote attaches to his master power cord that allows all the houses to be turned on at the click of one button.
Setup takes about eight hours, which this year translated to “two Christmas movies and a Packer game,” Hopfensperger said. He does it all at once to make sure everything is balanced.
“I’ve had to do some interesting engineering, and I’m not an engineer buy any means,” he said.
Houses come from Hallmark stores and often from eBay after Christmas since he said then people are “less stubborn on price.”
Houses are placed in a different order each year, but some naturally go together. The Beard Barber goes next to the beauty shop, and two sets of five houses with weather vanes with letters spelling “Santa” and “Claus” must sit in proper order.
Beyond the houses, Hopfensperger seeks out details to fit houses’ themes.
“One of the things that makes it is the little figurines,” he said.
Santa’s wish list sits outside of the toyland house, and bakers stand outside the bakery. A sledding hill made of Styrofoam complete with a sledder sits next to Santa’s Retreat.
Hopfensperger said he buys about six caribou figurines each year to eventually get an entire herd that holds up the Polar Express, just like in the movie.
The Polar Express was added a few years ago along with a family tradition. Hopfensperger sends train tickets to each of his grandchildren to come watch the movie on Hopfensperger’s 3-D TV the day after Thanksgiving and enjoy popcorn from Hopfensperger’s red popcorn machine and other snacks.
“That’s a big tradition we do,” he said. “It’s a nice thing we do year after year.”
By then, Hopfensperger has to have his village set up. He missed the deadline last year as he was in the middle of moving from Sheboygan to Port Washington — he wasn’t going to set it up in both places — but the village was up and running by the time his family came for Christmas.
Hopfensperger’s four children loved his mom’s village, and now their children enjoy his.
“They think I’m nuts,” he said of his children. “I think it surprised them that I have enough patience to put it up.”
His 11 grandchildren range in ages from 14 to 1.
“The older ones — they might not admit it but they enjoy taking a look at what’s there,” he said.
Friends and neighbors come over to see the village as well. Hopfensperger said the teens think it’s cool and the 3-year-olds want to touch it.
So far, Hopfensperger said he hasn’t experienced village spillage as he reached to knock on the wood trim of a nearby door.
The only mishaps this year were bumping off letters on the weather vane that spell “Claus.” Hopfensperger said he will glue those back on.
“I’ve never thought of myself as the handiest of guys so that I’ve put this together and not crashed I’ve kind of surprised myself,” he said.
Image Information: Stu Hopfensperger puts up a Christmas village each year in his Port Washington home. The village has grown to nearly 50 houses and includes The Polar Express that travels around the community. Photo by Sam Arendt