Christmas display Vinton turning off the lights after 56 years


The sun sets over Heidi Kersten’s Christmas exhibit on December 12 at her home in Vinton. Most of the decorations were created by his father. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Heidi Kersten said this will be the last year she will exhibit the Christmas decorations her father has created over the years. The exhibit has been a tradition for his family and residents of the area for 56 years. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

The sun sets over Heidi Kersten’s Christmas decorations on December 12 at her home in Vinton. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Heidi Kersten stands in front of a Christmas decoration dedicated to her late parents in her home in Vinton. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Heidi Kersten and her dog Jingles stand outside a Christmas exhibit dedicated to her late parents at her home in Vinton. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

VINTON – As she manually opens her garage door, Heidi Kersten reveals a family biography that she was unable to fully install this year.

There, under fluorescent lights, are hundreds of handcrafted Christmas displays from the past 56 years, each covered in dust and sand brought by decades of glowing memories for the Kerstens and every family that has passed. over there.

“No one can really see that,” Kersten said of the garage, which is not just a storage unit, but an intimate look at its life with its ups and downs, learning curves and celebrations.

In short :

Lights: About 4,000 at the start and 33,000 at its peak.

Transformers: 3

Drop cord: 5 miles (26,400 feet)

Character parts: about 300 in total across all screens.

The first display: A Santa Claus painted on his sleigh.

Year started: 1965

Electricity bills: $ 1,500 to $ 2,500 per season

There’s the bald eagle her father dreamed of overnight to celebrate the bicentennial in 1976, whose mechanical wings moved with a cadence that told Heidi everything worked at night.

There’s the exhibit of Winnie-the-Pooh, made by her late brother Kyle, with a burnt arm after catching fire, demonstrating the risk involved in maintaining some of the homemade mechanics.

A rocket with floating smoke, made in the 1960s as man landed on the moon, reminds Heidi of the stitches she received after a bracket fell on her head, ensuring that the blood would be part of the family passion that required sweat and tears.

On her lawn this year are a handful of displays that she managed to set up. This is a drastic reduction from previous years in the tradition, but still the pride and joy of her rural home which has worked longer than it has been alive.

“I never saw an empty outlet until this year,” Kersten said. “It’s killing me a bit, I keep thinking about what I forgot to plug in.”

One made in memory of his parents, Larry and Carolyn, is surrounded by family figures cut out by the founders. They show their age – the figure representing Heidi is a baby.

Down the line, a chapel reminds Carolyn of one of her mother’s favorite songs – “The Little Brown Church in the Vale”. Next came the first mobile mechanical displays made by his father, a big deal when they were made.

The hands on the figure of Jesus are a trace of the hands of his father, which will be difficult to put away. Yet another shows a woman going back and forth to play the organ with a Christmas choir – something visitors always thought was Carolyn.

As Kersten, 52, turns on screens for the last time this year, the ones she’s kept are just a taste of what’s to come. After 56 years, this holiday season will be the last for shelves.

If you are going to:

Heidi Kersten’s Christmas exhibit will run through December 27 at 5598 22nd Ave. Trail to Vinton.

The display is open from dusk until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends.

“It’s the only Christmas I’ve ever known. I don’t want to see it go away, ”she said. “They wear out, and so do I.”

As the physical wear and tear of installing and removing screens takes its toll, Kersten hopes to move away from screens a bit. With finicky old hand-crafted mechanisms his father concocted with socket wrenches, washing machine motors and gearboxes, it is perhaps ironic that Kersten never got to see the Christmas displays of someone else when she has to watch her own all winter.

Although Heidi has been involved in the show her entire life, she has run it herself with the help of friends since 1999, when her father passed away.

A farm boy at heart, Larry worked at Link-Belt in Cedar Rapids making crane parts. He was known for mixing all colors by hand and was as artistic as he was mechanical, with a love for both crafts and drawing. Seeing the reaction to his early exhibits was all the encouragement he needed to build an exhibit empire that would become a Christmas tradition for families around the world.

Carolyn, who died in 2002, was the operations boss and oversaw bulb changes, maintenance, and the long installations that cars lined up for miles to see in the ’80s.

“(Carolyn) was really peculiar about where things were going,” said Mike Hepker, a family friend who has been helping with lights since the mid-80s. “She would pull out books and say ‘no , it was over here. ‘”

But since 2002, the substitute teacher has continued, remaking screens time and time again as some seemed to age beyond repair for a shrinking audience. The more she thought about it, the more she realized why she was continuing the tradition.

“I have lost a lot of people in my family. The lights have never let me down. It has been the only constant, ”she said. “I didn’t want to give up because I knew they would always be beautiful on Christmas. Just having this thing was what kept me going.

Despite their age and wear and tear, warping and tearing, Hepker said the screens have managed to instill a Christmas spirit as tangible as the 33,000 lights. The man from Vinton, now an electrician by trade, said the charm of handcrafted life-size displays is still present, old or new.

“Much of this activity was aimed at young children,” he said. “You walk past and their eyes light up with the different screens, when they watch Santa Claus going up and down the fireplace. You can see the amazement in their eyes.

That’s why he continued to help year after year.

Another helping friend, Angie Becker, said there was no such thing as display when it was in its prime.

“This exhibit was the one we came to see after the church’s Christmas program,” she said. “He’s the only one I can remember being this fat.”

Now his daughter is going to see him with her friends.

“Her parents loved Christmas. (Kersten) wanted to give that joy and those Christmas memories to other families, ”Becker said. “I think that’s what kept him going. She wanted to keep her parents’ legacy alive.

As generations of children made their own memories driving through screens for 56 years, Kersten made his own from across the fence: recognizing his father in Santa Claus costume even when his parents didn’t want him to. she knows it, hearing the music playing through the window after her first hours of bed, listening to the mechanical heartbeat of the ensemble.

When the screens are last unplugged on December 27, the 52-year-old’s memories are what will be left to keep her warm under the moonlight of winter.

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