ELLINWOOD — After the turkey is eaten, and your family is thinking about ways to make this holiday season one to remember, one suggestion is to head out to Ellinwood’s Wolf Park where starting Friday evening a unique and imaginative tradition will once again make its appearance.
Since October, volunteers led by Ellinwood Historical Society member Judy Hayes have been working to repair and refresh a gingerbread village that has delighted the community for more than a decade. Consisting of seven buildings, each featuring animated displays, a carousel, a Jack-in-the-box, a train and populated with gingerbread people, the village will be on display at the northwest corner of Wolf Park for the 2016 Christmas season.
Earlier this month, Hayes met with Rhea and John Grandon, the original creators of the village, behind the band shell at Wolf Park to go over directions for assembling the village. There, the plywood buildings were clustered, each was attached to a new wooden skid to ease the moving process thanks to the work of woodworker Lonnie Schrag. Assembly of the village began Wednesday.
The village received a major facelift this year, and volunteers have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the project. Perhaps that’s fitting, because the village was created in the first place after John Grandon accidentally cut his thumb off back in 2003. (It was surgically reattached, and it works just fine now, Grandon said.)
“He was going stir crazy around the house, asking me to help him come up with something to do,” Rhea said. Thinking back to a holiday tradition she had enjoyed as a child, she shared her idea.
When she was young, Rhea remembered visiting a display the Pullman family set up every winter in a building on their Seventh Street property. The building had many windows, and they would display a different holiday scene in each one, she said. All the kids would visit it for years.
“It was such a neat thing to look forward to going to and looking at that,” she said. “We thought it would be neat if the kids of Ellinwood could have a similar experience today. We wanted to add to the heritage of our town.”
That year, they built the first gingerbread house, which they displayed in their yard at 213 Pembroke Lane. The project then took on a life of its own, as they accumulated supplies for additional buildings and displays throughout the years at garage sales and flea markets and handed off items from neighbors and friends. Everything was done on a shoestring budget, Rhea said, but over the years she estimates they invested about $7,000 into the village.
Plans were created for 10 buildings, and one was added each year. One year, they built a train, and another a mill and a pond feature. Only seven of the buildings were actually built before they decided it was time to gift the entire display to the city. When they did, they had only two requirements. They asked that the city commit to setting it up every year in such a way children could have close-up access, and that it never have an admission charged.
The city graciously accepted the gift, and in 2014 the village was assembled near the band shell in Wolf Park. However, that made it difficult for people to view from their cars, something that made it difficult to enjoy in cold and inclement weather. So in 2015, the village was relocated to the northwest corner of the park amongst the pine trees. That added to the charm, and it made viewing the village much easier, Hayes said.
For the decade the Grandons owned the display, they disassembled it over a few months, and stored it in a building at the edge of town. “But we took our time,” Rhea said.
Now that the village has been given to the city, that luxury of time is no longer a factor. The last time it was disassembled, city workers were racing to get the project done ahead of an expected snow storm. The entire village was dismantled in just a few hours, resulting in the needed repairs this year.
“This is really an interesting project,” Hayes said. “I’m really glad we got started when we did, and I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t have gotten it started earlier. But we’re getting there.”
Those who have visited the village over the years will remember the intricately decorated carousel, which this year is also getting a facelift. Ellinwood Historical Society volunteer Robin Gray has taken apart the feature in order to give each component a fresh coat of paint, and will have it rebuilt in time to once again capture the imaginations of the children who are drawn to it each year.
Another feature that will return is the ice skating pond with figure skaters, set next to the mill wheel in the center of the village. A lighted candy cane lane will lead visitors around the tiny village. When she created it, Rhea Grandon designed it with children and the disabled in mind, making sure that cords were kept away from where people could trip or get hung up on them. She has passed this detail on to volunteers.
“You just don’t know how nice it is for someone to take such an interest in this,” Grandon said. “Now we know that even when we are gone, it will still be here.”
Storage site sought
Currently, the city is looking for a home for the village where it can be stored from year to year without having to be disassembled. It was mentioned in Ellinwood City Manager Chris Komarek’s monthly report to the city council in November. The estimated need is about 800 to 1,000 square feet in order to store the displays and all the accessories, lights and electrical cords.
“All we’ll need to do is move the buildings, plug everything in, and there you go,” John Grandon said.
Ellinwood public works employees helped volunteers move the village into place Wednesday prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. They will be on hand Monday to help with the electrical aspects of the project. Staff from the Wolf Hotel helped stage the interiors of the buildings, Hayes said. The village will be lighted and in its full glory by Monday or Tuesday evening, weather permitting, she added. It will be on display through the 2016 holiday season.
Those who would like to donate to the upkeep of the village can do so through the City of Ellinwood. This year, an account for the village has been set up at Home Lumber in Ellinwood, where donations can also be left.