By Ginna Parsons
NEW ALBANY – Betty Sims remembers exactly when her obsession began to take shape. It was Christmas 1991 and it started with a gift from the Parent Teacher Organization at Ford Elementary.
“My friend Collett Cross was the principal there at the time and the PTO gave her the boarding school as a Christmas gift,” Sims said.
The boarding school is, of course, the Wackford Squeers Boarding School in the Dept. 56 Dickens’ Village Series, a collection of miniature lighted buildings and accessories, such as people, trees, vehicles, animals, street lamps and fences.
“She put it on her piano and it stayed there for a year,” Sims said. “I finally said, ‘Why don’t you start adding to that? It looks kind of funny sitting by itself.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t “we” start collecting?’”
Sims was hesitant at first. Some of the pieces were expensive and she had children in college at the time.
“I decided I’d just do churches,” said Sims, 66. “Well, that didn’t last long. We got into it full force and started buying every piece we could find. We just went crazy.”
Their first purchase was a set of five merchant shops: Poulterer, Geo. Weeton Watchmaker, the Mermaid Fish Shoppe, White Horse Bakery and Walpole Tailors. But Ivy Glen Church was the piece that really piqued Sims’ interest.
“But it was retired, and retired pieces are twice as expensive,” she said.
She bought it anyway.
After she procured that piece, she acquired the Curiosity Shop, three David Copperfield houses, Knottinghill Church, Cobles Police Station and the Theatre Royal.
Pieces have come from Tupelo, New Albany, Vicksburg, Jackson and Gulfport; Tucker, Ga., New Orleans and Branson, Mo.; Jackson and Gatlinburg, Tenn.; and Hawaii.
“Today, I have 67 pieces in an 8×8-foot lighted display case my husband made,” said Sims. “I have four or five pieces that didn’t make it in.”
In addition to the Dickens’ Village Series, Sims also has pieces from the North Pole Series in the case.
“We quit collecting in 1998,” she said. “We finally got to the point where we realized we were both running out of room.”
Out of all the opulent buildings, churches, cottages and shops, her favorite piece in the Dickens’ series is a small nativity scene.
“I love it,” she said. “There’s nothing sweeter than the birth of Jesus.”
Nativity scenes, too
In fact, the Dept. 56 nativity scene is one of 29 Sims puts out in her home at Christmas. They range in width from about 3 inches up to 3 feet.
“I thought about not doing Christmas this year, but our kids look forward to it so,” she said. “I do it because of the children.”
The lighted display case holding the Dickens and the North Pole series stays up year-round, but the nativity scenes don’t go up until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“My husband, Charlie, loves Christmas,” she said. “Every other time of year he’s grumpy, grumpy, grumpy, but not at Christmas.”
Sims said in all her years of putting out and packing up her nativity scenes, she’s never had anything broken until this year.
“This past Sunday, we had an arm broken off a piece,” she said. “But then I guess we’re all a little broken.”