CP’s rolling light show spreads Christmas cheer, helps stock food shelves across the Minnesota heartland.

    Central Minnesota towns, from Loretto to Detroit Lakes, are looking forward to the return of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s dazzling Holiday Train to help them celebrate the Christmas season and provide food for struggling families.
Arrival of the lavishly lighted train has become a popular event in the places it visits each year, according to food shelf officials, and it generates a significant amount of groceries and cash to help fill a need that isn’t shrinking.
The Holiday Train will visit nine area communities in mid-December on its 13th annual tour across the northern United States to raise food, money and awareness for local food shelves while delivering loads of Christmas spirit.
The train is scheduled to stop in Loretto, Buffalo, Annandale, Kimball and Eden Valley on Thursday, Dec. 13; Glenwood, Alexandria and Detroit Lakes on Friday, Dec. 14, and Elbow Lake on Saturday, Dec. 15. The schedule appears on this page.
At each stop, Canadian recording stars Tracey Brown and the Claytones will perform a high-energy half-hour show from a boxcar stage while a traveling Santa hands out candy canes to kids in the crowd and townspeople bring food items or cash to stock the food shelf.
The Holiday Train itself is a 1,000-foot-long beacon on wheels, with hundreds of thousands of LED lights illuminating Christmas decorations on its 14 rail cars.
Canadian Pacific ran its first Holiday Train across Canada in 1999 and added the U.S. train in 2000. Since then, the two trains have traveled about 6,000 miles a year to over 150 places in both countries.
They’ve raised nearly $6.4 million and about 2.6 million pounds of food, according to the railway. “Everything that is raised in the community stays in that community,” CP said, and it typically donates $1,000 to food shelves where the train stops.
The U.S. train originated north of the border in late November, then dipped down into the northeastern states and the Midwest.
As it heads northwest out of the Twin Cities, the Holiday Train will stop at Loretto on the western edge of Hennepin County, where it’s become the occasion for a huge festival and a big part of the community’s Christmas celebration, according to Hanover Area Food Shelf Director Helen Skutley.
“It’s just super fun,” she said, describing wagon rides, mini-train rides for kids, bonfires, hot drinks and cookies, a live radio broadcast and visits with Santa.
How many people show up depends on the weather, she said. “They had over 800 people here last year,” when it was on the mild side.
The train generated more than 2,400 pounds of food and $21,000 in 2011, Skutley said. One man wrote out a check for $10,000 because “he thought this was the best celebration.”
“It’s just the best thing to have happened,” she said of the Holiday Train’s annual appearance over the past dozen years. “It’s a huge benefit to us.” Hanover shares train proceeds with food shelves in nearby Delano, Rockford and Maple Plain.
After eight visits to Annandale in northwest Wright County since 2004, the train has become a tradition there, Jean Skomoroh, Annandale Area Community Food Shelf managing director, said.
“I think it’s something that everybody looks forward to now … the whole community,” she said. For her and husband Ed, who’s president of the food shelf, “it’s the real kickoff to the holiday season.”
“It just makes me feel like Christmas 50 years ago when I was a kid – just getting together … shoulder to shoulder, singing outside in the weather.”
The Annandale Boy Scouts sell hot chocolate, and one business, Anchor Dock & Lift, holds a Holiday Train party and fundraiser each year for its customers and guests.
The train attracted an estimated 1,500 spectators last year, generating over 800 pounds of food and more than $24,000. About $17,000 of that was raised by Anchor Dock toward a new food shelf building, which opened last summer, Skomoroh said.
Since 2006, the train has raised about $56,500 and 7,300 pounds of food. “It’s the largest single-day fundraiser of the whole year for us,” she said, bringing in about 20 percent of the food shelf’s annual needs.
Kimball and Eden Valley, a dozen miles apart and two of the smallest towns on the train’s Minnesota route, have an arrangement to take turns welcoming it every other year, but this year it will stop in both places.
The train was supposed to stop in Kimball this time, Mayor Tammy Konz said, but Eden Valley initially appeared on the schedule. When she contacted Canadian Pacific, the railway acknowledged the mixup, Konz said, and added a 15-minute stop in Kimball where the entertainers will put on a shorter show from the back of the train. Kimball, will get a full stop next year.Konz expected train watchers will be treated to hot chocolate and cookies, and the chamber of commerce will collect toys for tots that night as well.
The train has visited the southeastern Stearns County community three times before, Konz said. “Every year it stops here it’s freezing cold, so we know what to expect.”
Kimball Area Food Shelf Director Mary Mathies estimated the train raises up to 200 pounds of food and $300. “It’s really appreciated,” she said. “It all helps.”
The train has made several appearances up the line at Eden Valley in Meeker County, food shelf director Pat Arnold said. “We really have a good crowd when they come,” she said, even in frigid weather.
The Lions and Legion clubs have sold soup and sandwiches in the past and will again sponsor a train-related activity, she said.
Besides the local food and money raised, “it really is a benefit whenever it stops,” Arnold said, “because it gives a pretty nice check.”
When the train pulls into Alexandria each year, it’s late morning and all the youngsters are in school, so the crowds are small, said Mary Sinning, director of the Outreach Food Shelf.
And because it’s daylight, “you hope for an overcast day so you can see all the lights on the train.”
But “it has become a tradition for a lot of people,” she said, citing parents who bring their small children. “They’re excited when the Holiday Train comes.”
“It is very significant in bringing in food and money,” Sinning said, adding she’s “thrilled to death” that the train stops there and helps the food shelf. “It’s fantastic. They just do an exceptional job.”
She planned to do some brainstorming to come up with ways to better promote it this year.
“People do look forward to the train; there’s no question about it,” said Jack Berenz, director of the Becker County Food Pantry in Detroit Lakes, where it’s made several stops over the years. “They ask me, ‘When’s the train coming?’”
“People like it and the kids are the ones that enjoy it more than anyone else,” Berenz said.
He estimated 500 people showed up to greet the train about three years ago when its visit was combined with a community celebration. A storm on train day another year caused the poorest turnout. “People were smart,” he said. “They stayed inside.”
Berenz estimated the food shelf collects cash and food amounting to $600 or $700 each time the train comes plus Canadian Pacific’s $1,000 donation. “It is a successful program for us each year.”
As it has every year, the train will visit Elbow Lake on its final Minnesota stop before heading into North Dakota and then across the Canadian border into Saskatchewan.
As many as 2,000 people have come to see it, Sharon Ehlers, Grant County Emergency Food Shelf coordinator, said. And “I know we have over 1,000 sometimes,” she said.
As in the past, the chamber of commerce will put on a dinner at the county building on train night, and the stores will stay open.
A significant amount of food and money is generated by the train from local donors, she said. “It really helps us out a great deal.” Besides that, “I think it leads to awareness of the food shelf and the need.”
The beneficiaries of all the personal and corporate generosity are food shelf users, thousands of families along the Holiday Train’s route who struggle in the wake of the recession to put food on the table, and whose numbers aren’t declining.
“There’s such a need right now,” said Sandy Seibert, acting director of the Hearts and Hands Food Shelf in Glenwood, “a bigger need than we’ve ever had.”
“We have seniors, unemployed people who have high medical expenses and need help at least temporarily. We have people who are disabled and unable to work.”
Some of the food shelf’s clients are working, she said, but they don’t earn enough to cover the rent and food. “Economically, people just don’t have the means.”
Seibert estimated the food shelf, which serves Pope County, has experienced an increase of at least a third in the number of families it helped this year and distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds of food annually.
“You always hope things are going to be better,” Sinning said at the Outreach Food Shelf in Alexandria. “Well, they’re not yet.”
The food shelf helped 400 new families in Douglas County from January to September. “So the need is probably the biggest it’s ever been,” she said.
“We are putting out tons and tons of food,” Sinning said, and last year it added up to 583,000 pounds.
At Detroit Lakes, the food shelf distributed 432,000 pounds of groceries last year, Berenz said.
“It’s been increasing every year since I’ve been working here,” the 15-year director said. “The need at least in this county definitely is growing.”
The Buffalo Food Shelf handed out more than 465,000 pounds of groceries last year to seniors, the unemployed and young families in that Wright County city.
“We go through so much food,” she said. But “I would say in the past year or two it’s kind of stabilized.”
The Hanover food shelf gave out almost 256,000 pounds of food in St. Michael, Albertville, Loretto and Corcoran during 2011, according to Skutley. The amount has stayed the same for two years, she said.
And the Annandale food shelf distributed 253,000 pounds of food to families there, in Maple Lake and South Haven last year, but “we’re starting to feel a leveling off,” Skomoroh said, as monthly increases have lessened lately.
In an observation that echoed other food shelf officials, Ehlers of Elbow Lake praised area schools and community organizations for their support.
“I think the people in this part of Minnesota are particularly cognizant of those in need, she said, “and they step up to take care of them. They help take care of their neighbors. Everybody does.”

Holiday Train Schedule 2012

Here’s a schedule of places and show times for the Holiday Train’s visit to Central Minnesota towns. The train will arrive 10 to 15 minutes before, and Canadian Pacific encourages spectators to come early.
Thursday, Dec. 13
•  Loretto, Hennepin County Road 19 railroad crossing, 4:30 p.m.
•  Buffalo, near the McDonald’s Restaurant at 612 Northeast 3rd Ave., 6 p.m.
•  Annandale, west side of downtown park over the Oak Avenue crossing, 7:30 p.m.
•  Kimball, Willow Park Lions Shelter at Highway 15, 15 minute stop and go, 8:45 p.m.
•  Eden Valley, Highway 22 railroad crossing, 9:15 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 14
•  Glenwood, Canadian Pacific station, 20 -15th St. NE, 10:15 a.m.
•  Alexandria, Eighth Avenue East railroad crossing by the Hubbard Feed Mill, noon
•  Detroit Lakes, Holmes Street railroad crossing near Holmes Community Center, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 15
•  Elbow Lake, Main Street railroad crossing, 4:45 p.m.