Events

“Griswolds of Mahomet” continue 40-year tradition

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

It didn’t start out this way.

It didn’t begin with 100,000-plus Christmas lights adorning the front and back yards at George and Dixie Schoonover’s Mahomet home on Timberview Drive.

At the outset, there weren’t dozens of wooden structures — some with lights — and the multiple extension cords.

In the beginning, there wasn’t even a separate 24-foot by 48-foot off-site shed whose sole purpose is to store assorted Christmas decorations.

“It started with me wanting lights on the bushes,” Dixie said.

Every story has a beginning.

At a time the Schoonovers’ daughter was 3 years old and two years way from having a younger brother, the family started small.

This was in the 1970s.

In subsequent years, the lights on the bushes had some company.

“We did the mailbox, then we hit the trees,” Dixie said.

“For years,” George added, “we had a 40-foot wooden train.”

A former neighbor volunteered to help.

“He liked to do woodworking, and we bought patterns,” Dixie said.

“We graduated (from the trains) to a Santa house, Mr. and  Mrs. Elf. About every two years, George adds something new,” Dixie said.

The switches will be flipped on Sunday about 5 p.m. to light up the property, affectionately known as the Clark Griswolds.

The display will be lit for about five hours each night throughout the month.

It’s a tradition 40 years in the making, creating a community treasure that become a December destination stop.

“We’ve had people (stop) from China and Holland and a lot of the states,” George said.

Dixie said it’s not unusual for her to be in Champaign-Urbana when she meets someone who asks, “where do you live,” she said.

When she responds “Mahomet,” invariably there is a follow-up question.

“People will say, ‘Do you know that house with all the lights?’ “ she related.

She answers in the affirmative and usually adds, “That’s my house.”

The Schoonovers have a myriad of stories from the decades of lighting up the Christmas season for the countless passersby.

“We’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to turn them on for visitors,” George said.

“About 18 years ago, I was giving our grandson his 2 a.m. bottle and there was a knock on the door,” Dixie said. “I saw a bus outside and they said they were going back (home) and would we please turn the lights on.

“So, we did.”

As dusk approaches on December evenings, Dixie Schoonover has learned the perils of being out and about.

“I can’t say how many times  I’ve had to sit in a line to get to my driveway,” she said.

A number of years back, George Schoonover was thinking it was time to retire the tradition, telling his wife, “I think I’m done with this.”

Almost by cue, the couple had a young visitor the next day.

“A neighbor boy came to thank Mr. Schoonover for doing the lights,” Dixie said. “We’ve had children come to the door, giving him candy.”

The production is so elaborate that the family can’t just get up on a Saturday morning and have it finished in the afternoon.

“We start in October,” George said. “It takes about two months.”

The better part of one day is required just to transport all of the decorations from the storage shed to the house.

The weekend after Thanksgiving is traditionally moving day. This year,there were about a dozen volunteers.

“We get asked by people to help us,” Dixie said. “We’re very grateful. It takes a village.”

There’s a core group that annually assists George.

“Our son Lucas, and Neil Bateman are a huge help every year,” Dixie said. “It would not get done in the same manner without them.”

Some of the work only needs to be done once.

“We leave about 50,000 lights up in the trees every year,” George said. “We go out in October, plug them in and replace the ones that need it.”

They have so much to put out that they have expanded and are decorating part of the property just north of their residence as well.

Occasionally, there have been some highjinks.

“In 1997, Alvin was kidnapped,” Dixie said. “On New Year’s Day, everyone at the Hen House got in their cars and started looking.

“He was found and returned unharmed.”

The project is a labor of love, which George Schoonover hasn’t charted.

“I’ve never tried to keep track of the hours,” he said.

After thinking for a few minutes, Dixie offered an estimate for the annual combined man hours for everyone responsible for the project.

“Close to 500 hours,” she said.

As impressive as the exterior of the home is, the interior is far from barren.

“If it doesn’t move,” George said, “It gets decorated.”

Dixie Schoonover calls it her “hobby.”

“I have two big trees, and small trees in every room (three bedrooms and two bathrooms),” she said. “Just things I have accumulated.

“My mom started me on elves and I’ve kept the theme going.”

The reaction and feedback from the community helps inspire the Schoonovers to work on improving their display each year.

“When you drive down this street, you can’t help but smile,” Dixie said. “People tell us, ‘We have to drive by your house on our way home.’

“They love the music. Kids love Alvin, and their eyes as they hang out the windows are sparkling. There’s so much to look at.

“It’s a joy that we don’t take for granted.”

New to the lineup this year is a little boy with his tongue stuck to a pole, as well as a six-foot inflatable, which follows the Griswold theme and was donated by a long-time Mahomet resident.

Twenty years ago, the Schoonovers put in a special electrical outlet box strictly to accommodate the outside lights.

The cost of the month-long display is not staggering.

“Since we went with LED lights, it’s not that bad at all,” George said, “$400 to $500.”

If anyone is unsure how to reach the residence, the route is easy to follow. Take State Street from either direction and turn south at Timberview, an intersection which includes a sign on the southwest corner indicating the direction to go to reach the Griswolds.

“It’s in Bill Taylor’s yard,” George said. “He made that sign over 20 years ago.”

The Schoonovers will undertake a type of restoration project when this Christmas season ends.

“By next year, we’ll have to do some repainting,” George said.

The good news is that they are thinking ahead. The display is not likely to stop now any time soon.

“It becomes a giving to the community,” Dixie said.

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