Flossmoor woman builds extravagant gingerbread village in her home
BY STEVE METSCH email@example.com December 23, 2012 3:36PM
Janet Gustafson shows the gingerbread village that she creates annually at her home in Flossmoor Friday, December 7, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 25, 2013 6:03AM
Anyone who sees Janet Gustafson’s amazing gingerbread village may be left speechless.
Seven-year-old Emily Wendt was reduced to speaking in abbreviations on a recent afternoon.
“OMG” was her first response when Emily, a friend of a neighbor’s granddaughter, got her first glimpse of the village.
“I can not take a picture of this. It’s too big,” Emily said.
Set up in a room off the kitchen of her Flossmoor home, Gustafson’s village is indeed a marvel to behold.
“It’s a family tradition for Flossmoor, and all of Chicago. Children don’t understand the work involved,” said Nancy Beele, a neighbor who visits each year.
And it’s all made from gingerbread that Gustafson bakes herself. The hundreds of tiny figurines have been collected over the years. There are even tiny trains, N gauge and nano, that run in and through the village’s buildings. Tiny Christmas trees, some made from inverted ice cream cones, light up.
And the whole thing is illuminated by a couple thousand sparkling multi-colored lights. Built at the perfect height for young child, it’s as though the North Pole has found a home in Flossmoor.
“I started in June and I finished on Halloween,” said Gustafson, who’s been building the village for 40 years.
She finds items at craft stores or she recycles things to create figures or other items in the village.
A tiny Santa in one building started as an angel Christmas tree-topper. “I cut off the wings,” she whispered in a conspiratorial tone.
A spinning gizmo that holds tiny cakes in a bakery? That began as a double Ferris wheel, though it’s now sitting on one side.
“I just look at things and figure out how I can use them. Or, if I can’t find them, I make them. Like the little gingerbread house, that’s something I would make,” she said.
All the snow is made from white Royal frosting.
“Fifty pounds of it. It’s real. All the greenery? The trees? That’s all frosting,” she said.
You could eat the village, but chances are some of it may be a little stale after a while. Gingerbread gets brittle with time and she uses basswood to reinforce the buildings.
Why spend so much time and effort to build the village every year?
“I love it. I really like creating games and I’ve found a lot of kids have lost creativity. I don’t know why. But I like them seeing you can make things from something else. This isn’t cheap to do, but this is baking,” she said, offering a gingerbread cookie to a visitor.
“I don’t work. I have a lot of energy. My degree is in political science. What am I going to do?” Gustafson said.
Every year, the village has a theme. This year’s is “Games and Trains.” Gustafson , 68, cleverly has tiny clues dispersed throughout the village that, when deciphered, has visitors playing a game designed by grandson Jeff Gustafson, 12.
Her husband, Kurt, who died three years ago, was an engineer who enjoyed bringing his coworkers over to see the village.
“The engineers loved the village and I always had to make things difficult because they’re engineers,” she said.
“Most of the adults love the games. The little ones like the lights (and) like the trains. The men like the mechanicals and always ask how I make them.”
It takes Gustafson about a week to take apart the village. The gingerbread used for houses is new every year. Two weeks of steady baking usually makes enough, she said.
The figurines, tiny trains and other items are all stashed away until the next Christmas season.
She’s more than happy to open her home to people to see the village, and plans to do so Jan. 6. Call the Flossmoor Village Hall at (708) 798-2300 to schedule a visit.