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That's the ticket: 15th Cottage Grove Holiday Train stop will be Slusser's last as lead

Mary Slusser greets the Holiday Train last year with (from right) Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey, former St. Paul Park Mayor Keith Franke and former Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty. File photo by Scott Wente / RiverTown Multimedia

Mary Slusser's life has always involved trains.

Growing up in LaCrosse, Wis., she lived about two blocks from the nearest train tracks, and many of her family members worked for a railroad. It wasn't until her husband, himself a locomotive engineer, took her to the St. Paul Holiday Train stop in 2002 that she found her own way into the train community.

"I remember saying, 'I wonder what I can do to get it to stop in Cottage Grove,'" she said.

Slusser worked for several months before getting the green light from Canadian Pacific. She went to work gathering local leaders, community members, businesses and the Chamber of Commerce to make the first stop a success.

It started at the Belden crossing near 80th Street, a space the community quickly outgrew after the first few years.

Since then it has been at the now-familiar Youth Service Bureau area.

Before they stopped reporting crowd sizes, CP told the Cottage Grove Holiday Train committee for several years that their stop was the largest one they did.

On this 15th year, the committee is close to breaking $1 million in funds raised for the Friends in Need Food Shelf since the first stop.

"We would not be able to do any of what we do without this wonderful fundraiser on our behalf," said Michelle Rageth of Friends in Need. " ... I just want to thank Mary and the whole Holiday Train committee for 15 years on our behalf."

Slusser said she never imagined getting this close to $1 million raised when she first brought the train to the city.

"I didn't think it would last this long either," Slusser said.

Slusser said she likes to add something new every year, and this year it's the laser show before, during and after the train, as well as the Festival of Trees event.

The Festival of Trees will involve companies, families or organizations purchasing a tree and decorating it with the theme of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song.

It took on a new twist, Slusser said, when many of the organizations decided they would donate their trees to a family that needs one.

Slusser said the magic of the events hasn't dissipated for her after 15 years.

"I still get goosebumps," she said. "My favorite is when the train is approaching and you can see it through the trees, see the lights starting to come, and there's a silence (in the crowd) .... When the train leaves, still kind of exciting, to think about what we've achieved." This year she'll have a million things to think about achieving as the train rolls out.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve my community, in helping to create this winter-wonderland event, which helps generate money for the Friends in Need Food Shelf, and enlighten and prepare us for the Christmas season," Slusser said in an email.

The committee won't lose her cold turkey: she'll still be around doing many of the same things she has in the past, just not as the head.

Randy Bachman, a six-year Holiday Train committee veteran, will take over as one of the co-chairs. They are still looking for a second co-chair.

"I'm just excited," Bachman said. "It's such a great event, and the thing I look forward to the most each year."

With current co-chairs Slusser and Colleen Stelmach staying onboard as committee members, he's relieved he'll have them on hand for help and advice.

Sandy Shiely, former Cottage Grove mayor, is also saying goodbye to the Holiday Train this year. Shiely has been part of the committee since the beginning.

If you go:

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will arrive in Cottage Grove at 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9. Festivities including grilled food, hot cocoa, a laser show and merchandise sales will begin by 4:30 p.m. The train will stop along West Point Douglas Road, near the Youth Service Bureau.

Parking for the event will be in the Park and Ride lot. Additional parking will be available at All Saints Lutheran Church and the Cottage Grove Armory. Limited handicap parking can be found in the Youth Service Bureau parking lot.

Items for sale will be the usual sweatshirts, caps, mittens and fleece blankets, as well as raglan shirts and insulated tumblers added for the 15th anniversary.