Four strangers on a train: Stillwater’s Victorian carolers had unique beginning

Jeff Bowar, Paula Lammers, Jody McCormick and Brett Smith make up the strolling Victorian carolers in downtown Stillwater this weekend. (Photo submitted by Jody McCormick)
Jeff Bowar, Paula Lammers, Jody McCormick and Brett Smith make up the strolling Victorian carolers in downtown Stillwater this weekend. (Photo submitted by Jody McCormick)

Four strangers meet on a train and then join together to create a strolling caroling group in a city on the St. Croix River. You might not believe it if you heard it — that only happens in those Lifetime Christmas movies, right? But that’s exactly what happened for the Victorian carolers people have seen strolling around downtown Stillwater and popping in and out of area businesses to provide some holiday cheer.

The four have become five: Jody McCormick, Brett Smith, Paula Lammers, Jeff Bowar, and Reeves Cary. They worked as singers on the Zephyr Train when it was still in service. Then they sang at Christmas events at the Dock Cafe and have now expanded to Main Street for the past four years as part of the city’s Hometown for the Holidays events. They also are available for holiday performances when they are not in Stillwater.

“Sherri Hopfe (of the Dock Cafe) deserves all the credit,” McCormick said. “She’s a little Christmas elf, always looking for and creating ideas about things that will add to the ambience. Carol Stabenow from Sash was the connection that matched us with Sherri. My husband and I are both music teachers who had Carol’s children in our classes.”

In all, the group has performed in the Stillwater area for close to 10 years. They come from all over the metro area. McCormick and Smith are from White Bear Lake, while Lammers is from Apple Valley. Bowar comes from St. Paul and Cary lives near Minneapolis.

“It’s not an unfamiliar drive for me because I worked on the Minnesota Zephyr, and I came to love Stillwater,” Lammers said. “This gives me an excuse to come back to Stillwater and work with some really good friends that I wouldn’t get to see as much.”

They say the experience has been wonderful.

“We love it. We absolutely love it,” McCormick said. “It is such a joy for us to see the surprise on people’s faces, and everyone just loves caroling and the spirit it brings to the season. Since we’ve been doing this for several years, we’ve had a lot of people say to us that they were hoping to run into us.”

The group has a larger repertoire of songs that are pretty well-memorized so they can mix up the music and prevent repeat performances during their caroling.

“It really is a lot of fun,” Lammers said. “We add a few songs so it doesn’t get too boring or repetitive if we hang around somewhere for a while. Sometimes we’ll have somebody who doesn’t work with us regularly so they may have a caroling book to keep track of all the music. My favorite is ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High,’ because it’s so challenging and allows me to focus and concentrate.”

They sing in all weather and make sure to dress accordingly. In addition to their Victorian costumes when it’s really cold they layer up but always aim to have a fantastic time.

“Last weekend or the weekend before when the windchill was -15, we had a total ball even though it was so cold,” McCormick said. “It was so fun to get the warmth of people on a cold night like that because we were all bonding against the elements.”

The Hometown for the Holidays events continue this weekend see the schedule listed below:

• Friday, Dec. 20 – Strolling Victorian carolers, 7-9:3 p.m..

• Saturday Dec. 21– Free carriage rides, 12-4 p.m.; strolling Santa, 1-5 p.m.; Victorian carolers, 1-3 p.m.; make your reservations for Victorian Tea at Lowell Inn 2-4 p.m.; make reservations for brunch with Santa at the Water Street Inn, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; make reservations for Biercycle caroling tours at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

• Sunday Dec. 22 – Free carriage rides, 12-4 p.m.; strolling Santa, 1-5 p.m.

• Tuesday and Wednesday Dec. 24 and 25 – Make reservations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners at the Lowell Inn.

• Saturday Dec. 28 – Make reservations for Biercycle caroling tours, at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

• Tuesday Dec. 31 – Free carriage rides, 3-7 p.m.; New Year’s Eve events at a variety of Stillwater eateries and watering holes.

Contact Avery Cropp at [email protected]