At one time, Bob and Grace Felthousen stored 300 tiny buildings in their Plattsmouth, Nebraska, home. They occasionally took them out of cartons to display on the main floor and in the basement family room, with 700 accessory pieces such as cars, trees and sleighs.
The structures are a minuscule fraction of full size. But the amazing Christmas villages they create are huge indeed.
Bob and Grace are among thousands of folks who collect porcelain Department 56 figurines. The company, based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, makes Christmas decorations that become tiny towns when grouped together. The items are among the hottest holiday collectibles: Pieces grow in value after the company quits making them and they get hard to find.
Department 56 collector clubs help fans find rare pieces and even have conventions. As of June 2017, 85 clubs were registered with a national umbrella organization.
The Felthousens got their first figurine in 1986. Now, more than $18,000 and 1,000 pieces later, they have a new home at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum near Ashland, just in time for today’s Santa Goes to Space event.
Coincidentally, the museum that specializes in space was offered the vast collection in part because it had enough room. The couple wanted to keep the village intact and had trouble finding an area museum large enough to accommodate and store it.
“We never even considered separating it — it wouldn’t be important to anybody that way,” Bob Felthousen said. “It’s perfect here. They have the place to display it. They set it up right by the door.”
The museum’s mission is to educate the public about air and space history, with more than 300,000 square feet of exhibits. Its traditional focus is on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, but in 2015 it expanded to add art to its educational focus. “STEAM” enables the museum to include a variety of exhibits such as the Department 56 display, said marketing manager Deb Hermann.
“We hope to do a lot of different art exhibits,” she said. “It enhances the visitors’ whole experience.”
Department 56 makes items for several collectible series, including a Dickens Village, an Alpine Village and a New England Village. The Felthousen collection includes pieces from two series: the Original Snow Village, with items such as a mountain lodge and chalets, and Christmas in the City, featuring 1930s- and 1940s-style buildings such as a movie theater and a Chinese restaurant.
The buildings come with lights and movable features, such as rotating signs. Because of that, and its sheer size, the Felthousen display takes several days to set up.
“It took 12 people four hours just to get it out of boxes when we set it up last year,” Bob said, and two weeks to make it display-ready.
It took about four days to assemble it at the museum — two full days with about 18 volunteers total, and another two days for facilities manager Mark Hamilton to complete “the piddly stuff,” Bob said.
Hermann said about 130 volunteer hours went into the assembly, including help from the Felthousens.
The Felthousens have collected things throughout their nearly 60-year marriage. They met at Omaha Technical High School, where they were part of a group of five girls and five guys who became lifelong friends.
“She was a cheerleader,” he said with a smiling nod toward Grace. “All of the couples stayed married,” though the group now has some widowed members.
Bob, 82, said some lean years as children led the couple to become adult collectors. They had several ventures in Plattsmouth, including a restaurant. And his wife was an obstetrics nurse.
“Neither of us had anything when we were kids, and we just worked hard,” he said.
They were unfamiliar with Department 56 when their son gave them a figurine for Christmas. In true collector fashion, they researched the pieces, joined a collector club and slowly built a village empire. They even traveled to Minneapolis to get one of their most prized pieces, a rare church.
None of their three kids wanted the huge collection.
“In a way, they’re glad it’s gone, because they don’t have to mess with it when we’re gone,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll miss it, too.”
As will people in Plattsmouth and the surrounding area. Last year more than 350 people saw the display at the Felthousen home.
Far more people will be able to see it at the museum, however. Hermann said she expects 2,000 people or more to attend Santa Goes to Space today, and many more to see the display during museum hours until it’s dismantled for the year after Jan. 5.
That’s gratifying for Bob and Grace.
“We never could have imagined this when we got that gift,” Grace said of their first piece.
“We couldn’t have asked for a nicer place,” Bob said of the museum. “We’re glad they got it.”