Here for the Holidays: A Landmark Lost: Coleman’s Winter Wonderland

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WYDaily’s Managing Editor Nancy Sheppard and her older sister, Jennifer Miller, at Coleman’s Winter Wonderland in Portsmouth circa 1988 (Courtesy of the James & Robin Miller Collection)

Welcome to Here for the Holidays! Every Friday throughout November and December, we will bring to you stories about different traditions, places, and events for the holidays and winter season right here in the Historic Triangle.

To kick things off, we revisit a Landmark Lost: Coleman’s Winter Wonderland that was once in Portsmouth.

PORTSMOUTH — For several generations of children, Coleman’s Winter Wonderland was as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus and snowmen. With animatronics, dazzling lights, and a chance to meet the man in red, this jaunt to Portsmouth’s Churchland neighborhood was a “must” to ring in the season each year.

Coleman’s Nursery in Portsmouth

Like many in the first half of the twentieth century, John Coleman picked up from his native state (in his case, Florida) and settled into a quaint life right in Hampton Roads. With only three years of formal education, Coleman originally set out to be a washing machine salesman.

Fate would intervene when Coleman and his wife bought a small house in rural Churchland. In 1943, the couple opened a plant nursery named after themselves.

Arthur J. “Junie” Lancaster and his wife, Millie, were regular customers of the Colemans and, in 1951, Lancaster went to work for his friends.

Tragedy struck in 1964 when John Coleman passed away. The Colemans did not have any children and left the business to the Lancasters.

A Winter Wonderland

The hardest time for a nursery’s business is the winter season. Junie and Millie wanted to find some way to bring crowds in during the colder months.

In 1964, the Lancasters visited the World’s Fair in New York City, where they were enchanted by Walt Disney’s Small World ride. Then, while walking through the city, the couple were inspired by the ornate window displays for the holiday season. A lightbulb went off in Junie’s mind: why not bring this magic to Coleman’s?

In 1965, Coleman’s Winter Wonderland opened to the public. In a window of the nursery, an animatronic sleeping Santa Claus would lay in a bed, snoring while a feather moved up and down from his nose. A sign was propped up at the foot of the bed that read, “Don’t wake until December 24th.”

The display grew each year, with Teddy Bear Town added within the first five years.

Noting the vibrant spirit that the display brought to customers each year, Junie refused to charge admission for the holiday display, despite any expense the growing collection incurred.

Trainland

In 1968, the Lancasters added Trainland to the wonderland display. Junie bonded with Mike Twiford, the son of Coleman’s employee, Floyd Twiford, over their mutual love of model railroad.

The displays continued to grow at Coleman’s. One of the more magical was a separate building called the Snow Palace. Inside, guests could watch clowns in a festive carnival doing tricks and ice skating on mirrors while twinkle lights provided a magical ambiance. In 1978, Sugar Cane Forest featuring gnomes harvesting candy cane and an animated nativity were added to the sprawling display.

At the very end of the 1970s, the Lancasters decided to sell the nursery to Floyd Twiford and another long-term Coleman’s employee, Dabney Morgan.

By the end of the 1982 winter season, Coleman’s boasted 260 animated figures and approximately 100,000 lights.

Fire at the Nursery

On Dec. 31, 1982, local fire departments received a call for help from the Coleman’s property. At approximately 7:20 p.m., fire broke out at the nursery.

Fifty firefighters responded to the scene and combated the blaze, which burned past 9:45 p.m.

While there were no injuries reported, Winter Wonderland did not fair as well. While the Snow Palace and trainland display were spared, four buildings were reported as destroyed with the animatronics that inside, including Junie Lancaster’s original sleeping Santa. All told, the nursery clocked in at $2 million in damages.

While it seemed hopeless, the community showed Twiford and Morgan what Coleman’s Winter Wonderland meant to them. Bennett’s Creek Rescue Squad, who would raise money at the display each year, worked to raise money for the nursery.

Donations flooded in from all over the country, totaling $20,000. At least one of the manufacturers of the original display figures offered to remake many of the pieces, charging less than half the cost for them. Residents donated decorations, plaster snowmen, and even a hand-carved carousel.

Finally, another sleeping Santa was purchased (though the new one was notably absent of its predecessor’s feather).

Morgan said, “If you have a disaster, people will bind together in this country and get you back on your feet. It really makes you humble.

Arson investigators determined that the blaze was intentionally set, though the case remains unsolved.

Mike’s Trainland

Following the fire, there was concern for the safety of Junie Lancaster’s antique model railroad collection. In 1983, Mike Twiford, the boy that bonded with Lancaster over the trains, was given permission to display them at the Lancaster Train & Old Toy Museum in Suffolk.

The affectionately nicknamed “Mike’s Trainland” became an equally important stop for those making the journey to Portsmouth for Coleman’s. For awhile, it was billed as the singular attraction in Suffolk, earning the city its only interstate highway sign.

Saying Goodbye to Junie Lancaster

Twiford and Morgan continued to expand the seasonal event in the spirit of Junie Lancaster.

By 1993, Winter Wonderland used more than 50,000 miniature lights, seventy-six pounds of glitter, two thousand yards of ribbon, and thirty-five painted displays. The nursery boasted fifteen permanent full-time employees, thirty-five part-time, and usually hired five to ten more to handle traffic during the winter months.

Late in his life, Junie Lancaster suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. Near the end, Junie and Millie made the decision to donate his antique toy and model railroad collection to the Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth.

On February 15, 1996, Arthur J. “Junie” Lancaster passed away. A resolution was passed in the Virginia General Assembly in honor of Junie for his “lifetime of service to his fellow citizens.”

Millie still maintained ownership of the building in which Mike’s Trainland was housed. On January 15, 1998, Mike’s was closed when Millie decided to cancel the lease on the building. She cited business decisions taking precedence over sentimentality.

Despite Junie’s death and the closing of Mike’s, Winter Wonderland continued to draw guests from all over the world, averaging 85,000 guests each season.

A Landmark Lost

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Twiford and Morgan were ready for retirement. However, neither one’s children had any interest in taking over the business. It was announced that 2003 would be the final season for Coleman’s Winter Wonderland.

The shockwave of the news forced children and the young at heart to grieve for the long-held and beloved tradition. One letter received by the nursery begged Santa to save Coleman’s while Donna King, a local teacher, commented, “It’s not Christmas until you come to Coleman.”

By the time of its closure in 2004, the display had 800 figures on display.

Approximately half of the 4.8-acre property was sold to the Portsmouth YMCA for expansion, the other half to build the Churchland Library.

When Twiford was asked how he felt about other buildings standing where Winter Wonderland brought joy to generations of children, he said, “That’s life… change.”

Winter Wonderland Today

While the palace may be gone, the memory of what Junie and Millie Lancaster conceived and Floyd Twiford and Dabney Morgan remains fresh in the minds of those of us who experienced this magical place.

Groups across the country bid for the collection but, in the end, the Coleman’s Collection stayed exactly where it belonged — right in Norfolk. As of 2018, the City of Portsmouth Museums has ownership of the collection, putting it on display in the buildings in the downtown area nearly every year.

While the kitsch and comfort of this wonderful place may be long gone, the twinkling of its lights are never far from the memories of the many children who could never start the winter season without a stop at Coleman’s.

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