Austin was wowed by the "coal" topped cupcakes.

By Jena Carlin and James Rude
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Jena Carlin Creative

My son Austin, like so many 3-year-old boys, is obsessed with trains! Naturally, I wanted him to have the best birthday ever so it was all aboard the "Austin Express."

For the photograph on our party invitations, we assembled boxes, buckets, and even napkin holders held together by glue dots to craft a steam locomotive. My little engineer smiled for the camera and I digitally added wisps of steam and the tagline, "Engine to caboose: 3-year-old on the loose!" as well as a "Carlin-Crossing" sign (fun wordplay on his last name), courtesy of my friend Jennifer Milner.

We hosted friends and family for the birthday celebration at the Sherry Town Hall in Milladore, Wisconsin. Many of the items for Austin's party were handmade including the "Carlin-Crossing" signs. My niece Alivia Carlin and I spent the morning decorating the hall with retro-style pinwheels and other party supplies from Target, rustic details like burlap tablecloths and a distressed wooden board, and a glittery gold garland to wish Austin a happy birthday.

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Jena Carlin Creative

For the kids, we assembled cardboard box trains. They're easy to build from recycled items: gift-wrapping paper, household supplies, and craft paint (such as Martha Stewart's family-friendly craft paints at Michaels).

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Jena Carlin Creative

"Chuga chuga, choo choo! Chuga chuga, choo choo!" the children chanted while circling the hall in their box trains. They took the fast-track to their party favors at the baggage claim-marked by a miniature chalkboard easel from Michaels. There, the children found accessories from Oriental Trading to help them dress the part of engineer: red bandanas, train whistles, and conductor hats-all wrapped in a red handkerchief, and tied to a stick.

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Jena Carlin Creative

After all the guests had dinner and chatted, we sang "Happy Birthday" to Austin and ate up all of the train car cupcakes! He could have played with that cupcake train all night. To make it, we took his favorite set of wooden toy train tracks and laid them out along the dessert table. The little locomotive lead a train of "coal" topped cupcakes, each one topped with a letter candle that together spelled out two happy words, "Happy Birthday."

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