Lighting up the park

Saturday, November 23, 2002

The presents are stacked on the toy-sized merry-go-round. A swing set fit for elves stands nearby.

But this isn't the North Pole. It's Cape Girardeau city's park maintenance shed at Arena Park where workers are putting the finishing touches on their first Holiday of Lights display. It depicts park playground equipment -- complete with a motorized, spinning merry-go-round and even a wooden profile of one of the old steam locomotives that grace city parks.

The city's entry will be among 200 lighted Christmas displays that will decorate Cape Girardeau County Park North this holiday season.

Holiday of Lights will kick off with a lighting ceremony at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday.

The Salvation Army Choir will perform, along with local singing duo Robyn Hosp and Mike Dumey.

H. Weldon Macke, retiring Cape Girardeau County auditor, will throw the switch that will turn on the holiday lights. The audience will be asked to help with the traditional countdown at 6:25 p.m. The Salvation Army will provide hot chocolate for those in attendance.

The displays will be lit from dusk to 11:30 nightly from Wednesday through New Year's Eve. Admission is free.

This will be the 15th annual Holiday of Lights, which has become a Christmas tradition with displays ranging from Jesus-in-the-manger scenes to Santa and his reindeer.

"It's something that everyone from young to old gets to enjoy," said Bruce Watkins, park superintendent.

It's become a holiday destination, attracting area residents and out-of-town visitors alike. Last year, 26,886 vehicles -- including a number of tour buses and cars packed with families -- traveled the loop around the lake to view the displays. Some visitors make more than one trip to the park to view the lights, Watkins said.

The lights also dazzle the park's resident mascot, Buddy Lee Parker, a stray cat that county park workers have adopted.

"He will go out and look at the lights," Watkins said.

Started in 1987

The Holiday of Lights began in 1987 with 11 displays. With 200 displays now, the park has no room for more, Watkins said.

"We have reached our maximum," said Watkins. "You can only put so much power out there without it becoming very expensive to the county."

Extension cords snake across the park this time of year to power the displays. "We probably have a couple miles of extension cords laying on the ground," he said.

Several displays are already up. A lot of the displays will be erected this weekend, Watkins said.

There's a waiting list of about 60 businesses, organizations and individuals who want to put up displays.

"There is a tremendous interest and there always has been," Watkins said.

Cape Girardeau city park workers are excited about being a part of the holiday celebration this year.

"I felt we needed to be represented out there," said Jerry Houchins, city park foreman, as he and his co-workers put the finishing touches on their display in the park maintenance shed.

"These guys are great. They can take nothing and make something," said Houchins. Two old street signs are serving as seats for the swing set.

Salvage effort

The whole display will be outfitted in Christmas lights salvaged from Christmas trees that area residents have dumped in Arena Park in past years. Some people discard the trees without taking off the lights or even ornaments, Houchins said.

"We bought very little," he said of the display.

While the park workers' display is new, Grace United Methodist Church has set up lights in the shape of an advent wreath and candles for a decade.

The display floats in the lake on a Styrofoam base, which is anchored to the shore.

"It looks so good when it reflects in the water," said church member Wesley Kinsey, who helps erect the display each year.

It takes six to eight church members about two hours to get the display set up in the lake each year, he said.

Mary Beth Kenkel of Little Rock, Ark., is returning home to erect a Christmas trees-and-reindeer display in memory of her father, who died last year. Viewing the holiday lights had been a family tradition.

"He liked the lights," she said.

Three members of the Southeast Missouri Homebuilders Association spent a chilly Friday afternoon putting up three wooden outlines of houses decorated with Christmas lights .

"We have a good time doing it," said Greg Nolan, who serves on the association's board of directors.

Nolan said it's great that admission to the Holiday of Lights is free. In many places, there's an admission charge to see holiday light displays, he said.

While the displays really shine at night, they're still a crowd pleaser by day, said Watkins, the county park superintendent.

"We see school buses coming through," he said. Many day-care centers bring children to the park during the day, which also is a popular time with many elderly residents.

"Granted, you don't see the lights," Watkins said. "But you actually see the displays themselves."

335-6611, extension 123

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