It’s a few weeks before the Maryland Christmas Show and the dining room table at the Mount Airy home of Mary Ann and Keith Gehle is filled with tiny little houses in various stages of completion.
A few finished buildings include a 3-inch tall log cabin with a chimney stack, two dormers and a painted green door with a wreath. The roof is topped with glitter “snow” and two “snow”-dusted trees flank each side of the front.
Another is a chalet-shaped blue house with “Unicorn Lover” written on the front and a painted Christmas tree can be seen in the window. Overtop the door is a white silhouette of a unicorn and near the front door is a unicorn with a pink main laying down under the tree.
The Gehles own Main Street Villages and are just one of the about 125 vendors selling wares at the Maryland Christmas Show Fridays through Sundays for two consecutive weekends beginning Friday. The show is at the Frederick Fairgrounds.
In 1982, the Gehles were raising their small family and trying to repair an old Victorian home. They were looking for a side business to help bring in some extra income while Mary Ann stayed home to raise the kids.
“What was trending at the time was what you call folk art,” Mary Ann said. “They were shapes of cows and pigs and cats and watermelons.”
Keith suggested that maybe if he cut some items out, she could paint them.
“I said there’s no way I can do that because I’ve never painted before in my life,” Mary Ann said.
Mary Ann did her research on the type of paints she needed. She also had to figure out how to run a small business. The very first items they made were one-dimensional wall hangings of ice cream cones, cats, pigs, teddy bears and checkerboards.
Eventually, Mary Ann said she put some in consignment shops. Their business picked up and flourished after the publishing of a January 1983 article in Colonial Homes Magazine about a New Jersey antique shop that featured their work.
“I think around 1986 we started to do some shows and started selling our own work,” she said.
houses and villagesOne of those shows was the Maryland Christmas Show. As they started appearing at shows, they included the houses in their repertoire after they saw they were also a trend.
In the beginning, Mary Ann said the houses were primitive with just windows and a door. Those early buildings, Keith said, were made of regular pine. While they were still living in the Victorian home, he said he would use whatever type of wood he could find.
“But as the years went on, we had trouble with too much moisture in the wood,” he said of the lower-grade material. “So we’ve had to move over to ordering cabinet grade and better.”
By then, Mary Ann said they started to decorate the houses more.
“We decided we would add some snow and some glitter, which made them really special,” she said. “And people really loved that.”
By the time they were selling at the Maryland Christmas Show, they only focused on the villages.
“By then it kind of boiled down to the houses because it’s a natural, repetitive market. People come back and buy more. They’ll start their mom or their sister or their grandkids on a village,” she said. “So, you know, 37 years later, we’re still making the houses.”
Designing and buildingEach house design comes from Mary Ann, with Keith heading to his workshop and cutting it out based on her drawings.
Every year, she said, she comes up with an idea for a design.
“I will cut out whatever shapes she’s looking for and sand them, and then I bring them to her,” Keith said.
Mary Ann will then put a sealant on the wood, and sand the pieces again so they will be ready for painting. In the meantime, Keith cuts the bases and makes sure he knows which base goes with which building.
Over the years the houses have become more decorative.
“They kind of even themselves evolved from a very primitive house to something that has a yard and figures in it and trees and little vignettes, which people love because they like to add things to their village,” Mary Ann said. “That’s kind of been our evolution, I’d say the last five years. It’s always changing.”
All of the houses must first go through a prototype. The couple’s upstairs closet is filled with the prototypes of the ones that made the cut to become houses. Mary Ann said she adds between 10 and 12 new houses a year.
However, there are still figures like log cabins or churches that the Gehles make sure to include every year because of the popularity.
The log cabins, Mary Ann said, take the longest to make.
“Because I have to layer the paint and make them look like logs and chinking and all that kind of stuff,” she said.
Mary Ann said she’ll listen to what customers would like to see, but she doesn’t want to do any commissioned work, feeling it might take away the fun.
The buildings are not based on any specific places.
“We want it to be any town you want it to be,” she said. “Because when you start trying to do specific buildings, it gets really labor-intensive and then everybody wants their town, and that’s not what it’s about. It’s about Main Street anywhere.”
Follow Crystal Schelle on Twitter: @crystalschelle.