COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — It wasn't easy putting Cottage Grove on the map, but Mary Slusser was determined.

It was December 2002. Slusser had gone to see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train make a scheduled stop in St. Paul. She had heard about the train and its annual goodwill tour that started in the frozen reaches of Canada and swung down across the upper Midwest.

"I had no idea what I was going to be seeing," she said. "My first glimpse of the Holiday Train was from a distance, as the train slowly crept around the bottom of the bluffs and along the river, and into St. Paul. I remember my heart beating so fast, as I had never seen such as magical site before."

Slusser thought that her friends, family and neighbors in Cottage Grove deserved to experience that same kind of mesmerizing moment.

I thought to myself, "I wonder what I need to do to get the train to stop in Cottage Grove?"

She had a few connections with the railroad. She grew up in La Crosse, Wis., two blocks from the railroad station. Her family rented the upper rooms of their large, early-19th century house to engineers, brakemen and conductors, who were known as "railroad roomers."

Her grandfather, uncle, cousin, second cousin and husband all worked for the railroad, starting with the Milwaukee Road, which became the Soo Line, and then Canadian Pacific.

So Slusser contacted the brass at Canadian Pacific Railroad, who weren't all that keen to come on board. The purpose of the Holiday Train, they said, is to raise money and collect goods for the food shelves or pantries in each of the communities on its route. They required organizational and logistical support, not to mention a local beneficiary.

"They said, 'We already stop in Hastings and we already stop in St. Paul. Why would they stop in Cottage Grove?'" Slusser said.

I convinced them that we're a railroad community, plus we have a local food shelf.

"Out of the blue they called me one day and said they decided they would have the train stop in Cottage Grove," she said.

Cottage Grove was added as a whistle stop in 2003. Since then the event has raised over $1,143,229.56 for Friends in Need Food Shelf. The small crowd of about 200 that gathered for that inaugural event has grown into a yuletide village with a population of several thousand.

Moving on down the line

Two years ago, Slusser stepped away from her duties as chair of the Holiday Train Committee but remains heavily involved. For one thing, she's in charge of ordering the glo-sticks. Co-chairs are now Randy Bachman and Chelsea Swaggert.

The year's biggest party starts at 4:15 p.m. and is hosted by the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Cottage Grove, the City of Newport and the City of St. Paul Park, with help from an army of volunteers, local businesses and community leaders.

The train arrives at 5:15 p.m. Live music starts at 5:30 p.m., with sets by Meghan Patrick, Tanika Charles and Kelly Prescott. They'll play from the train stage inside a boxcar.

There's plenty going on before the train pulls in, however. Santa will be making his rounds and a limited number of free glo-sticks will be handed out. There's also a warming tent and free coffee, hot chocolate and cookies.

For families, dinner has been solved, thanks to the Cottage Grove Lions, who will be grilling brats and hot dogs. North Star Donuts will sell apple cider-flavored mini donuts, and the Smith Brothers Food Truck by Von Hanson’s will be selling pulled pork sandwiches, garlic and regular fries and chicken strips.

Should someone forget their hat or lose their mittens, they can buy them in the merchandise tent. Folks can also buy flannel pajama pants for children and adults, beanie stocking caps, sweatshirts, knit caps, fuzzy socks and Holiday Train iron-on patches.

The event is free, but folks are encouraged to make a cash donation to Friends in Need Food Shelf. Instead of food, consider bringing new personal care items such as bar soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, dish soap, toilet paper, paper towels or diapers.

"There's a lot more to look at this year," said Sonya Fox, owner of Remax, one of the sponsors.

The Holiday Train will also feature the Festival of Wreaths. Sponsored by the Cottage Grove Arts Commission, it will feature dozens of wreaths decorated by families and employees of local businesses. Sponsors pay $100 each to decorate a wreath. The proceeds benefit Friends in Need Food Shelf. For details on how to sponsor a wreath, visit www.cottagegrovemn.gov/government/boards_and_commissions/festival_of_wreaths.php.

If you go...

What: Canadian Pacific Holiday Train

When: 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10

Where: West Point Douglas Road, Cottage Grove south of the 80th Street bridge.

Cost: Free

Parking: West Point Douglas Road closes at 3:30 p.m. However, there will be parking at the Metro Transit Park & Ride. Zywiec’s Garden Center will provide free wagon rides to the site.

Some parking is also available at All Saints Lutheran Church at 8100 Belden Blvd. and the Cottage Grove Armory at 8180 Belden Blvd. Limited handicap parking can be found in the Youth Service Bureau Lot.