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For four years, from 2008 through 2011, Santa Rosa's Railroad Square swarmed with crowds of costumed revelers one day each summer, gathering at the railroad tracks to watch fanciful contraptions race.

For a day, the historic district became a portal to another time — the late 1800s, but with more modern "steampunk" overtones.

Fans mourned when the founders of the beloved Great Handcar Regatta announced that the 2011 event, which drew 12,000 people, was the last. Expecting track closures because of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) construction, promoter Ty Jones and arts activist Spring Maxfield dissolved their partnership.

After a false start last year, and months of negotiations with SMART and the city of Santa Rosa, Jones is back this year with a new partner and a re-invented event.

Next Sunday, Aug. 25, at Railroad Square, Jones and event promoter Kathy Kingman of the Praetorian USA production company will present Dr. E. P. Kitty's Wunderkammer, featuring the Great Sonoma County Handcar Races. This event is set in the early 1900s, but the Victorian element from the Handcar Regatta is expected to persist.

"There's a lot more live music this year," Jones said.

"I would say this is an old-fashioned country fair and circus."

There also will be a busking or performing stage for local musicians, circus acts, and a greater emphasis on food, art and family attractions. And, of course, two dozen elaborately decorated handcars will compete.

Kingman of Praetorian USA, which produces the annual Northern California Pirate Festival in Vallejo, traces her festival experience to her years with the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County's Black Point Forest.

"From there, we branched out to the Sausalito Arts Festival and the Harmony Festival" in Santa Rosa, which is currently on hiatus, said Kingman, who co-owns Praetorian USA with her husband, Mark Solum. "We have our hands in a lot of events. We have a lot contacts for performers."

Jones, 51, is letting nothing keep him from rebooting the handcar race and festival this time, not even the stroke he suffered earlier this year, and he promises something both familiar and fresh.

If the name Wunderkammer has you wondering, it means "cabinet of curiosities" and comes from the Renaissance Europe tradition of exhibiting collections of oddities or curios.

"This is similar to the Handcar Regatta because you have all these different kinds of people coming together," Jones said. "But it's like baking a cake. If you put in different ingredients, you get a different cake."

Here's a closer look at a few of the diverse participants involved in Wunderkammer:

<strong>The Maker</strong>

Joel Allan has been nuts about trains ever since his mother took him out to the tracks to experience the roar of one clattering by.

Or so the family story goes. Baby Joel erupted into screams that day, but his mother believes it sparked his lifelong obsession. Allan's gateway train was a wooden Brio. That advanced to electric trains that overtook his entire bedroom as a kid. He moved on to miniature steam engines that he learned to make himself.

Now, at 38, after a lifetime ramping up the thrills, Allan has taken on the ultimate project: designing and building his own fully operating steam engine.

"I don't know how much bigger I can get," he said, from the back of a noisy Sebastopol warehouse that is headquarters for his company, Tangent Membranes, which makes customized filtration systems for wineries.

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He will debut his creation at the Wunderkammer Handcar Races, in which he has competed from its start in 2008.

"It's the most exciting day of the year, even better than Christmas," said Allan, who has competed each year since the races started in 2008.

Because of the magnitude of the project, he's contracted with a professional engine-building company near Fresno to fabricate it. But Allan designed it, assembled the parts, many vintage, and has spent the last six months working every weekend to pay for it — $80,000 so far.

He said every precaution has been taken for safety.

"I made sure the boiler was code certified. I've taken a number of steam safety courses and I've had a lifetime relationship with steam-powered miniatures. I have a healthy respect for steam," he said.

They hope to get it done by race day so Allan can take people on free rides. But even if it's not operational, he will still truck the 6-by-6-by-8-foot engine with an open platform, canvas covered roof and vertical boiler to the Wunderkammer for other train buffs to admire.

He expects it to eclipse the wonder of the century-old handcar he built and raced several years ago, an eye-catching replica of a real handcar that a collector in Connecticut ended up seeing online and buying from him for $10,000.

Since the handcar race entrants have to be human powered, Allan will be racing on a circa-1905, pedal-powered rail bike with its own story. The machine, rusting in a yard for decades, was used to maintain the old California Western Railroad, also known as the "Skunk Train."

The bike was owned by his grandfather-in-law, who rode it to work in Fort Bragg from his cabin in the woods in the 1940s.

"I know I won't win first place," he said with a grin. "But I'm entering it to show it off."

<strong>The Costumer</strong>

Wunderkammer will showcase contraptions like human-powered handcars and kinetic sculptures. But some of the best visuals will be provided by the guests, who are expected to dress up in "electro circus steampunk" style, juxtaposing Victorian-era clothing with whimsical, modern touches.

"The design ethic is Victorian science fiction," said Marta Koehne, owner of Hot Couture Vintage and Costume Rentals in Railroad Square. "How do you take the strictly Edwardian stuff and bring it forward to a punk edge?"

If you can't answer that question, don't worry. Koehne can provide a head-to-toe outfit from her cavernous Costume Rental room. Or, you can browse the Hot Couture racks for pieces to mix and match yourself. Either way, wearing a costume is de rigueur.

"The idea is to put people in the art experience, and costuming is part of that," she said. "It allows people to become part of the performance."

A 35-year veteran of the vintage-clothing business, Koehne has noticed the costume trend growing alongside the popularity of theme parties. She has helped dress events ranging from the Sonoma County Museum's "Mad Men" gala to Petaluma's Rivertown Revival, among other events.

For Wunderkammer, Koehne suggested knickers, suspenders, collarless shirts, and high, button-top vests for men. Accessorize with pith helmets or derbies, combat boots or two-tone spectator shoes, goggles or pocket watches.

For women, think "Moulin Rouge" meets Miss Kitty from the TV series "Gunsmoke," with circus and burlesque touches. Start with an open-front overskirt, pinned back and layered over bloomers. Add a bustier or a high-neck blouse. Then set a vintage hat at a jaunty angle.

Since fashion goes in 40-year cycles, look for pieces from the 1890s, 1930s or 1970s.

"Think leg-of-mutton and gathered sleeves, and fabrics like velvet and taffeta," she said. "You want them beat-up a little. You want to take things that don't have much life, and give them a new life."

<strong>The Entertainer</strong>

His fans know him as Josh Windmiller, leader of the popular North Bay band The Crux, founder of the North Bay Hootenanny roving concert series and now music director of the new Wunderkammer festival.

Friends and family know him as Josh Stithem, born in Marin County and raised in Santa Rosa, the son of prominent local physical therapist John Stithem.

By either name, Josh is a busy guy. He mostly drew crowds at last month's Rivertown Revival in Petaluma, when he and The Crux put on a tent revival show, playing gospel-style tunes he wrote himself. He also booked music for that event.

Recently, Windmiller and The Crux teamed up with Santa Rosa's Imaginists Theater Collective to create "The Ratcatcher," a musical play based on the Pied Piper fairy tale.

At 30, he states his life goal in simple terms: "To build up the North Bay music scene, and contribute to it."

Windmiller is no newcomer to the ambitious local events produced by Ty Jones. The two worked together on the precursor to Wunderkammer, the Handcar Regatta, the last two of its four years, in 2010 and 2011.

For Wunderkammer, Windmiller has lined up seven of the region's most popular local bands, including the Church Marching Band, which includes all of the members of The Crux except Windmiller himself.

"I chose this time to lay back and not perform myself at Wunderkammer," Windmiller said. "I'll be busy stage-managing, and I want to focus on making this event really pop."

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