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Gingerbread Dreams

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Inside Jean Wood's toy shop, Christmas wishes always come true

By Vince Luecke

Shuttling from one room to another inside her comfortable home on the Ohio River, Jean Wood is a year-round telecommuter, a work-from-home professional who uses telephones and computers to schedule physicians for hospital emergency rooms in Florida.

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But as the weather turns colder each year, and Christmas nears, the Magnet woman takes on the added duties of a construction maven, a do-it-all architect, builder and mason. Her chief ingredient, gingerbread, might remind us of childhood poems about a fleet-footed man made of dough.

"Oh, do you know the Gingerbread Man, Gingerbread Man, Gingerbread Man? Oh, do you know the Gingerbread Man, who ran and ran and ran? He said, 'Catch me if you can.' "

The opening lines of "Gingerbread Man" could also point to Wood, a gingerbread artisan who forms walls, gables and shutters for her yearly projects, using frosting as mortar to fasten it all together and candy as decoration.

The holiday tradition began nearly 25 years ago as Wood, who grew up in Tell City and moved to Magnet two years ago, searched for a Christmas project that didn't come from a store and would interest her five children. It worked, drawing help from the kids' friends, who dubbed her Mama Wood. Over the years, she's baked gingerbread into walls of various heights and thin wafers for shingles. She's also made streetlights from candy canes and picket fences from pretzels.

"The imagination does wonders once you have a theme and an idea of what you want to create," the architect said while showing off this year's project, a Christmas toy store visitors can peer into and find Santa amid brightly wrapped packages. Snow-covered Christmas trees sway outside and ice-skaters twirl on what appears to be ice.

"I get excited every year when it's time to start working on the next house," Wood said while talking about the Bavarian look she gave the structure, with its steep gables and balcony.

Though the actual baking of gingerbread and assembly doesn't begin until sometime in November, Wood thinks about her next gingerbread house during the year, picking and choosing concepts from past creations but always willing to try new things. This year's toy store required between 60 and 70 hours of work but the result is a whimsical journey.  

Gingerbread forms the shutters and roof of the toy store, partially covered with a layer of snow-like frosting. Characters from "Toy Story" and "Monsters Inc." adorn the walls, as do wreaths, candy canes and small gingerbread men. Larger candy canes decorate the roof. Reindeer stand outside along a snowy sidewalk made from fondant that is lined with candy-cane streetlights supporting small glass bulbs.

Over the years, she's also included her children's interests, such as a basketball goal and baseball glove, into the magical creations.

During all of the years of constructing gingerbread homes, Wood has yet to suffer a catastrophic failure, due in part to a cardboard frame underneath the gingerbread that helps lessen the chances of collapse.

However, a portion of last year's home, a Swiss chalet, fell prey to a party guest who thought the project was an appetizer. Wood was entertaining friends in another room when she heard a sudden ripping sound, followed by loud munching. A man had helped himself to a portion of the pretzel railing around the chalet.

"We all stood around ready to burst out laughing," she remembered. "We tried to keep a straight face. The pretzels had to be stale."

Once the holidays pass, the home will be stripped of  reusable decorations and the then-stale gingerbread will be placed outside as a feast for squirrels and deer.

But as winter turns into spring, then summer, Wood will be thinking of Christmas 2009 and wondering where gingerbread and a little imagination will take her.