Train chugs into Saugatuck resident's garden

Layout includes whimsical houses, a log cabin, barn, church

By Jim Hayden
The Holland Sentinel

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) — Like any nervous artist before a grand opening, Randy Bekins put the last-minute touches on his creation — clearing away dust, checking connections, getting a new battery for the train whistle.

Bekins wanted the debut on Aug. 21, of the C.N.J. Railway in the Saugatuck backyard of Joy Muehlenbeck to not only run on time but sound accurate for the members of the Holland Horticultural Club.

He had no need to worry. The train was a hit as garden club members snapped photos of the two G-gauge engines and their cars chugging around the 10-by-20-foot layout.
“I just look for ideas all the time,” Muehlenbeck said about her backyard garden.

She got the idea for the train while flipping through the pages of a garden magazine and hired Bekins, owner of Choo Choo Boutique in Douglas, to make the dream a reality.

“I knew what she wanted to do and put it together,” he said. The work took most of the summer of 2011. The land had to be cleared, trenches dug for the wiring and, the hardest part, the track had to be level. To keep it from warping in the hot-and-cold Michigan weather, Bekins dug pilings, cemented them in place and put a wooden base for the stainless steel and brass tracks.

Muehlenbeck added the greenery and scenery. The whimsical houses and garden residents — there’s a log cabin and covered wagon, barn, church and a collection of Smurfs next to their mushroom forest — are on 16-by-16-inch metal plates, attached by magnetic tape to keep them from tipping over in the rain and wind.

“I decided not to plant directly in the roadbed,” she wrote in her introduction to the garden club members. “Instead, all plants (except weeds) are in original pots, ‘hugged’ by rocks. Drought-tolerant plants keep maintenance costs low.”

Muehlenbeck was born and raised in Chicago, though her parents had a home in Saugatuck since 1945. In 1957, Muehlenbeck, at the age of 19, began teaching at the Colf school house on 58th Street near New Richmond.

She then left Michigan to teach children of U.S. Air Force personnel in France, returned to teach in the Holland then West Ottawa school districts. She’s now retired.

She has lived on Hoffman Street in Saugatuck since 1970. She is often called the Popcorn Lady because of the popcorn cart she uses around town for her business CNJ Popcorn. She is involved with the Red Barn Theater, Saugatuck Center for the Arts, Saugatuck Woman’s Club, museum and chamber music festival. In 2009, she was named Saugatuck’s citizen of the year.

Muehlenbeck is a Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener and now, a proud train engineer with plans to expand her railway.

“I’d like to tie the railroad to the water features more,” she said, considering a replica of the Peterson’s Mill water wheel. The former grist mill is off Holland Street in Saugatuck on Moore’s Creek.
“The best part? I sit in my favorite glider, sip my favorite drink, flip the switch,” she said, and watch the trains. “Life is good.”