Sometime every December, I park on a country road and wait for Santa Claus to go up a chimney.
While children and Christmas purists would question much about that previous sentence, chances are that if you are from the Vinton area, you know exactly what road — and what Santa — I stop to see.
As a child, I often rode with my grandparents or parents to 22nd Avenue and V61 (the Mount Auburn road, as my ancestors called it.)
And we saw: This:
I didn’t know the name of the street or the family who lived on the corner, but I looked forward to seeing the huge display of moving Christmas decorations. My favorite was always the Santa who would rise from the chimney, his finger over his lips in the famous “SHHHH” gesture, and then slowly disappear again. I made my parents wait countless times for the Santa to appear again. I also loved the display featuring the reindeer on the sleigh being pulled by eight Santas, all with their legs frantically churning.
My parents never gave me lots of details, other than to explain how one man built this display.
Sometime around November of 1994 or 1995, I met Larry Kersten and his family at that home at that corner. I was a reporter at the Independence newspaper and I thought that the story — even though it was south of the Buchanan-Benton County Line — was worth mentioning, even though it meant a 45-minute or so drive.
Larry and Carolyn told me their story, and how (and why) the display took place.
It’s really a simple story that just kept going, and growing. Larry was a machinist and an artist. He liked to create mechanical thing with his hands, and he had young children. So he made a moving display and put it up with some lights around Christmas time. Then he made another, and another.
People started noticing. They started driving by — very slowly.
Seeing how much people enjoyed his work inspired Larry to do more.
This all started around 1964 or 1965. Heidi Kersten, the couple’s daughter, who now lives in that big red house on the corner, says there was some minor disagreement in her family on exactly which year the display began; she just knows the displays began before she was born.
Larry added to the display every year. As new characters and technology became part of the American culture, they became part of Larry’s light display. A smiley-face with a Santa hat. Scooby Doo. Dagwood and Blondie. The Flinstones. The 101 Dalmations, a gift from a Cedar Rapids fire house (count ’em). The Space Race was big in the early years of Larry’s work. A Santa in a rocket, and another in a landing capsule, are still part of the display.
For several years, Larry and Carolyn would dress up as Mr. and Mrs. Santa, and greet the many people who traveled from all over Iowa (and beyond) to see the display.
“Dad was my Santa Claus,” said Heidi. One of her first childhood memories is helping to color a dog house that her father included in one of his earlier displays. Heidi remembers how impressive it was to see what her father was doing, and to be invited at that age to be a part of it.
Now, Heidi is carrying Larry’s tradition into its fifth decade.
“It’s all dad’s ingenuity,” says Heidi.
I ask what her favorite display is.
“The airplane,” she replies.
I know exactly what she means because just a few hours earlier, I stood in the ditch along the fence, closely examining that airplane. Larry used a wooden barrel, a couple of fan blades and even a hubcap, to make a unique flying machine that even has an enclosed cockpit to keep the Santa who pilots it safe from the elements.
While most of us would look in an old shop building and see a pile of used parts, Larry looked at that pile and saw: Santa flying a bi-plane.
So, he built it.
Larry built all of his displays that way: A Christmas crane. A carousel featuring cartoon characters. An eagle flapping its wings. Moving reindeer. He created them all, using motors, chains, gears, belts, and other items he found around his shop.
Heidi shares her father’s love of Christmas. She especially loves watching families drive by, and seeing the children — even babies, and yes, at times the family dog — earnestly looking out the window at the lights and the action.
“I love to see the little ones cooing and giggling,” she said.
In addition to chronicling the changes in society, the display also hints at changes in the Kersten family. After the tragic death of Heidi’s brother Kyle, in a boating accident in 1985, Larry created a “Good Shepherd” display, featuring an image of Jesus holding many sheep.
“That was Mom’s favorite,” says Heidi, adding that Kyle’s tombstone includes an image similar to that of the Good Shepherd that is part of the display. Larry once wrote a poem, declaring that the purpose of the lights was to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The death of Kyle added more meaning to the portions of the display that express faith.
After the death of her mom, Heidi added a tribute to her parents, a painted wooden portrait that is among the first thing visitors see when they arrive.
Since her parent’s deaths several years ago, Heidi has kept the tradition going, starting each fall to have the display ready for the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Yes, the project is as challenging and time-consuming as it seems. Heidi said they close the display shortly after Christmas (The last day for the lights this year is Dec. 28) so they can begin disassembling the lights and displays.
Larry’s creations are now nearly 50 years old, and showing signs of wear. Mike Hepker, a family friend, has very important role in repairing those things that Larry built. Heidi says Mike is so adept at this that usually she can explain the problem over the telephone and he can identify the way to fix it.
“He’s been a real steady help for us,” she says.
In addition to jobs and other duties of life, Kersten battles the elements and time in working to keep their display doing. The storm of July 2011 severely damaged trees; the display that year was smaller than usual because of the many hours spent removing damaged trees and branches from the wooded yard, where the lights are hung.
Also, the fact that those moving machines are decades old means there is a constant need for upkeep. One, Heidi had gone out to investigate a problem with the Care Bears Ferris wheel, and part of it broke off in her hand, presenting another project for Mike.
Last year for full display?
Heidi spoke with us this week, telling us of the challenges she faces in maintaining and setting up the display. The moving decorations, made by Larry as many as 50 years ago, require frequent repairs and painting. The Santa in the chimney we mentioned earlier was stationary when we saw him, instead of slowly ascending and descending, peeking from and disappearing into that chimney.
The weather is also an enemy; the storm of 2011 left damage still visible. And this year, a rare post-Thanksgiving deluge caused a variety of water-related electrical problems. She had planned to add one more display, another tribute to her parents, but instead of painting, she spent many hours fixing the new problems that arose.
That challenge is becoming more daunting each year, although friends and volunteers — and this year members of a Cedar Rapids church youth group — come to help.
“This might be the last year I am able to put up the entire display,” said Heidi, adding that she hopes many people will come see the display, now that that is some snow to add to the Christmas magic.
Heidi does plan to keep putting up some of the displays, but wonders if she can do the entire thing again next year or beyond.
“I would love to see a lot of cars come by,” she says.
“Why I do it”
During our first conversation nearly 20 years ago, Larry told me that he was asked so many times why he began and continued his display, that he wrote a poem about it. He gave me that poem that day. Now, I am passing it on to you:
I do it to bring a little Christmas cheer
If for only a few days a year
I do it to change the faces of little children of sadness and fright
Into faces of happiness and delight.
I do it to help warm your heart and soul
Something you can’t do with fire and coal
I do it to bring smiles on the faces
Of people from near and faraway places
I do it to see the many colored lights glow
And place their pretty reflections upon the ice and snow
I do it to help you remember days gone by
And what could I have changed and why
I do it to help you remember the times when you were down and really sad
But isn’t it more fun to be happy and glad?
I do it to help you remember the reason for the season — it’s God’s birthday
Happy birthday, God — we are glad you were born in every way
Five decades; five generations
It occurs to me that Larry’s display has been brightening Christmas for thousands of Iowans for nearly a half-century. You can safely say that his display has been seen hundreds of thousands of times, if not a million, or more.
Five generations of Close family members have made that trek. My grandparents and parents took me; we took our children. Now, our granddaughters have seen it. I suppose you can count that many generations, or more, in your own family who have seen that Santa.
“Be sure to let people know what our hours are,” says Heidi.
From Monday through Thursday, the lights go on at dusk and remain on until 9:30 p.m. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, they stay on until 10 p.m. The Koopmans will turn off the display for the season on Dec. 28.
And as always, visitors are encouraged to leave donations in the metal giraffe that Larry named “Shorty.”
“I could not do this without those donations,” says Heidi. The display uses as much electricity when running as 6 normal households.
See more photos HERE.
See a video of the entire display, in about 3 minutes below