Americans — and Montesanans — adore their Christmas lights. Why not, they’re a uniquely American invention, brought to us by Ed Johnson, one of Thomas Edison’s associate inventors, in 1882. They were popularized in 1917, when the Sadacca brothers of New York started mass marketing the strands of electric lights under the NOMA brand, which cornered the Christmas light industry well into the 1960s.
Today, lights come in all shapes, sizes, colors and brands, as illustrated by a slew of Montesano residents who ornately adorn their homes each December. This town has embraced the American tradition to such a degree that it’s now well-known for its annual Festival of Lights each yuletide season.
Former Montesano High School Principal Ron Bennett, now retired, has embraced the tradition like no other. Bennett, who helped spearhead the creation of the Festival of Lights along with the late and venerable Margaret Downey, has won the Festival of Lights top award for residential decorating — The Griswold Award — two years running.
Each December, his home at 997 Stephenson Drive, becomes, well, absolutely Griswoldian in scale, and something of a tourist destination.
“I counted 249 cars in just 45 minutes on that Saturday night,” said Martha of all the yuletide gawkers who drove by and enjoyed her husband’s annual handiwork after the Festival of Lights parade on Dec. 14.
Ron Bennett says he usually starts putting up his cornucopia of twinklers just after Thanksgiving, but started a few days before the holiday this year due its late date in November.
“I just do a little bit at a time,” he said. “I always put up about the same amount each year. I just bring my totes out and start putting them up.”
Unlike Clark Griswold, Bennett has never counted all his lights, but figures he’s got about 10 big tote buckets full of them, adding a few new strands each year as older ones burn out. He doesn’t bother with trying to find one or two burned-out bulbs that cause an entire strand to fail.
“To me, they’re not worth messing with. I just buy some new ones,” he said.
Just down the hill from Bennett lives Lisa Cornwell — at 813 McBryde — who won her first Festival of Lights award this year, garnering the Best Overall recognition.
“I was surprised,” Cornwell said of her award. “There’s a lot of good stuff out there.”
Cornwell says it takes her about two days to decorate her house and, like Bennett, usually has to replace a strand or two each year in her red-green-and-white-themed display.
“If it burns out, I just run down to the Dennis Company and pick some up,” she said, noting that these days she’s buying the new energy-efficient LED lights, which seem to twinkle just a bit brighter — and last a lot longer — than their incandescent cousins.
Other first-time winners were Travis and Kary Haring of 419 N. Academy who won the award for best Depiction of Theme (Candyland).
The Harings use of LED-lighted candy canes bordering their front porch may have helped their case.
“I didn’t even know what the theme was,” admitted Travis Haring. “I just put out the same lights I usually do, so (winning the award) was a pretty big surprise.”