New life for holiday lights along interstate
A staple of the holiday season in Grant County, the Quincy Valley Country Christmas holiday lights displays, are being given a meticulous makeover.
Every year, travelers on Interstate 90 passing through Quincy Valley as well as locals get some extra cheer seeing the bright, whimsical figures traced in Christmas lights facing the major east-west thoroughfare. A stocking, a bell, a dove, a snowman, are among the traditional Christmas images, and there are more elaborate designs that seem to move, such as a bunch of penguins sliding down snowbanks.
Over the past year the displays have been getting new wires and new LED bulbs in a long overdue effort to make sure that the eight-mile-long light show lasts for future generations.
“LED bulbs are a lot less maintenance,” said Rick Evans, one of three volunteers working on the displays in one of The McGregor Company’s buildings in Quincy.
The old incandescent bulbs could be rattled and their filaments break while a structure was towed out to its spot facing the interstate.
“We would send them out of the shop and then people would say, ‘This bulb’s out.’ Well, when they left the shop, it was working,” Evans said.
The old-style bulbs would also get really warm, which in turn would heat the sockets. The LED lights stay cool, and that’s just one of the benefits.
“They take up about one-tenth of the power” of a regular bulb, said Pete Romano, the volunteer coordinator for the project. “It’s a twofold win: significantly less power and much brighter.”
Some of the wiring of the 22 displays is 25 years old, and, because the displays sit out in the sun, the wires deteriorate, Evans said. Even the newer displays are already about 10 years old.
The lighted figures originated with Scott Lybbert, who started building them in the 1980s.
The displays are based on a length of old pipe mounted on a two-wheeled axle with a tow hitch. Atop the pipe, a rebar figure is welded. Then come the wires with the lights, strung along the rebar and attached with zip ties.
A large display, such as the skating penguins, is actually built on two pipe sections that are hooked together in the field.
Wyman Duggan, working alongside fellow McGregor retirees Evans and Rob Mantz, described some of the older displays’ setups as similar to those on your living room Christmas tree: one string of lights plugged into another, following the shape of the rebar.
To give the appearance of movement, shapes within a display light up and go dark in sequence.
A simple display may take a day to rewire. The more complicated displays take longer, and some of them have “all kinds of circuits,” said Duggan, who has been the main caretaker of the displays for the better part of two decades.
It takes a long time to replace the bulbs too. Most of the figures have hundreds of bulbs, and the larger figures have more than 1,000 bulbs.
A GoFundMe campaign raised money to help pay for the materials. The campaign sought to raise $18,500, and so far it has raised $19,685.
“We were blown away by the participation” in the fundraiser, said Romano.
The fundraising started a year ago and Romano said he thought it might take two years to reach the goal. Instead, it took a year, with the bulk of it happening during three to four weeks. To donate, go to www.gofundme.com/I90lights.
The money raised will pay for the rewiring of all the displays, Romano said. More than 2,000 feet of wire has been used in rewiring the displays.
“The funding campaign was very successful,” said Romano, who has helped coordinate the fundraising campaign with Lisa Karstetter. “It’s been a really ambitious project.”
Romano called Karstetter a great supporter of the project over the years.
“She has been a real asset for the group,” Romano said.
Romano added that the fundraising campaign showed him how many people “really enjoy seeing those lights,” judging by the messages they left on the fundraiser’s webpage. “You can see a lot of real positive feedback,” he said, adding that such
outpouring of support was “very humbling.”
The lighted figures are placed from Exit 152 on Interstate 90 on the west end to just past exit 160.
Farmers host the displays through the holiday season, some of them positioning their irrigation equipment to supply power to the displays. The farmers also help by paying for the electricity. Once they are plugged in and turned on, the lights are on 24-7, and the farmers don’t mind, Romano said. To the farmers, turning on the lights is part of the spirit of the holiday.
“They have a minimum amount of power that they have to pay for,” Romano said. “So it doesn’t hit them very hard.”
The lights turn off on New Year’s Eve.
A handful of locations, Hirai Farms, Weber Farms and McGregor among them, store the displays during the 10-month-long offseason.
“This coming year, we will be fortunate enough to have them under cover for the bulk of the year,” Romano said, noting that in years past, some displays had to stay outside.
“They have been outside more than they have been inside,” he said. “We just didn’t have access to storage at the time.”
Both Duggan and Evans said there’s some talk about building new displays, like an American flag or a Seattle Seahawks logo, but given how much work it is to rewire a display, they can only imagine how much work it is to build one.
In the meantime, they enjoy the popularity of the displays, which by now has extended past the borders of Washington state. Truckers know there’s a stretch of Interstate 90 that becomes extra jolly during this time of the year.
“It’s very rewarding to be out there working, and the long-haul truckers drive by and when they see you out there working they start honking their air horns,” Duggan said. “You know you’re doing something right.”
He later added, “that’s the cool part, when we see people that go, ‘We saw ’em as kids, and we took our kids, and now we are taking our grandkids. That’s pretty rewarding.”
By Sebastian Moraga, email@example.com; Dave Burgess contributed to this report.