In this season of the pandemic, people need a positive diversion wherever they can find it, and residents of communities like Cleveland, St. Peter and Le Center are providing.
Three homeowners — Rick Lloyd and Renee Koch, Mike and Lathea Sargent, and Fred Danner — have transformed Washington Street in Cleveland into “Griswold Lane.”
The parade of Christmas lights from home to home gives even the eponymous Clark Griswold from “Christmas Vacation” a run for his money. Each home carries its own unique spin on Christmas decorating. The Sargent’s home has been nicknamed the “Hallmark House” by Koch for their elegant display of white lights adorning their home.
Lloyd and Koch each aim for a more kitschy Christmas with a parade of Santas, reindeer, snowmen, penguins and every lawn decoration imaginable. Colored lights are projected onto the house, and speakers play classic Christmas carols in the evening. On the Danner home, passersby can read a large sign welcoming travelers to Griswold Lane and even a stoplight decorated in red bulbs with permission from the city of Cleveland.
Visitors can also see the Tree of Christmas Past by the stop sign. The tree is put up by Danner every year for people to leave ornaments commemorating their lost loved ones. After the Christmas season, Danner saves the ornaments so that when the next Christmas rolls around people can come back to pick up their ornament and be reminded of what they wrote.
Danner usually purchases a live evergreen tree for the stop, but with the COVID-19 pandemic souring spirits, Lloyd and Koch decided to surprise him by purchasing an artificial tree to put out on the lot, spreading around some of their own decorations.
“There was a bunch of stuff that made him say ‘Bah, humbug’ this year,” said Koch. “So we said, ‘We’re going to show you. We’re going to make your house look a little bit more pleasant.’ And he got out of his funk and started putting up decorations too.”
Spreading Christmas cheer is what the display is all about for Koch and Lloyd, and it’s what has motivated this Cleveland neighborhood to carry on the tradition for 15 years.
“It’s so fun to watch,” said Lloyd. “The kids press up against the window as they’re driving by. That’s what it’s all about.”
Griswold Lane took shape after a light display Lloyd and Koch visited in Mankato was canceled. Determined to create his own light exhibition, Lloyd declared “Step back, Mr. Griswold is here.” True to his word, Lloyd got to work creating an extravagant light display with his neighbors.
Others have joined in on the tradition over the years. In the beginning, Cleveland resident Larry Johnson decorated his home with the rest of the neighborhood before his death. There’s also a neighbor who joins in across the street with a simple sign that reads “Ditto.”
Koch and Lloyd jump at the chance to add to their display. Many of the decorations in their yard are items neighbors, family and friends planned to throw out before Koch and Lloyd intervened.
“It’s all kind of a mishmash of what you didn’t want, we’ll take,” said Koch. “What you didn’t want, we’ll take and you’ve got a lot more room than we have, so we’re going to move into your yard too.”
Clark Griswold’s infamous light display has also served as an inspiration for the Simon family in Le Center. Christmas Vacation is an all-time favorite movie for Phil Simon, so it’s little wonder that he, his wife Lisa and his nine year-old son Ben won the top spot in the Le Center Chamber of Commerce House Decorating Contest.
Taking a top spot alongside second-place winners Cassie and Matt Vlasak at 341 W. Sharon St. and third-place winners Shannon and Kevin Holicky at 435 Rolling Hills Dr., the Simon home on 620 Rosewood Lane was a sight to see. Christmas decorations cover practically every inch of the house inside and out. Multi-colored bulbs wrap around the home, while the trees are wrapped in blue lights shine for thousands of feet. At the top of the roof, Santa can be seen going in and out of the chimney.
The full display was a month-long task requiring the Simon family to rent a lift to get the lights onto the roof and the trees. Lisa took care of the decorations on the ground, while Ben helped his dad string up the lights up high to create the grand dispay.
“We try to spread the Christmas spirit. We’re big believers in that,” said Phil. “We want to make everybody happy. It’s nice to see people enjoy it.”
The family has always been big on decorating, but it wasn’t until the past few years that they started decorating from the bottom of the house to the top of the trees. Their efforts have earned them three contest wins in the past four years.
“Every year, we add a little bit more and a little bit more,” said Phil.
The display even extends into the backyard where the hockey rink is dazzled in a ring of bulbs. Ben is an active hockey player, so the rink stands out as his favorite part of the lights.
“It’s a two-purpose thing,” said Ben. “It’s for decorating and also for skating and hockey.”
Bob and Joann Witty, 86 and 85, have brought joy to their neighbors every Christmas season for more than 40 years with an elaborate lighting display in their yard at 475 Union Street in St. Peter. In the attraction grows over the years with new additions.
“We kept adding something every year, and people got to liking it,” Bob said. “We’ve had a lot of traffic coming by who’ve noticed., more than maybe other years. It brightens up things for people. A little joy about now is good.”
This year they added about a half dozen reindeer and Christmas trees.
Other highlights of the menagerie include their famous helicopter on the roof with Santa Claus driving that can be seen from far away, the sequence lighted Santa’s sleigh on the roof, motorcycles and cars, a hockey player, Santa and Mrs. Claus on a sleigh and Elves at the North Pole, snowmen, angels, candles, all lit up with a variety of lights. The entire display is surrounded by miniature lighted soldiers that can be made to look like they’re marching.
In its second year, the centerpiece, is a nativity scene with an entrance gate archway saying Happy Holidays.
“We used to fill the trees, too,” Bob said. “We had 10,000 to 15,000 more lights. But I can’t do that anymore. I used to get on a high step ladder with a pole and put ‘em up there. It’s tough to do now.””
“We like the religious part of Christmas,” said Bob, who is a member of Sunrise Assembly of God. “That’s what Christmas is all about. People everywhere are putting their trust in everything but God, but we put our faith in God because he can answer all of these problems. He’s real. He lives within me. I’ve invited him in a born-again Christian experience.”
It takes days of work to set up the display which covers almost a quarter of a block. They set it up on Thanksgiving and turn it off and start taking it down about the first of the year.
“Every year, when I bring the lights out, I need to do repairs,” Bob said. “Little wires in the bulbs break. Now they’re mostly LED which helps in the bill. They’re 70 to 80 percent cheaper to operate.”
Neighbors along the street have started to follow the Wittys’ lead and have expanded their own light displays, proving the holiday spirit is contagious.
Tri-City United administrators hope to open school back up in the new year, but students won’t return all at once.
Early learners in pre-k through third grade would be the first to return to school under a phase-in plan presented to the Tri-City United School Board on Dec. 13. Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said that details could change as news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic develops.
“This is a plan for what it might look like,” said Seifert. “I can’t say when. We want to have the how and what it looks like so when the when comes, we’re ready.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz updated the state’s Safe Learning Plan used by schools across the state on Wednesday to allow all elementary schools to operate in-person starting Jan. 18. Walz cited young kids’ lesser susceptibility to serious complications from COVID-19 and a better understanding by state health officials of how to mitigate spread of the virus in school buildings.
“There is strong evidence we are starting to turn a corner thanks to the hard work of Minnesotans over the last few weeks to keep each other safe. But we aren’t out of the woods yet,” he said. “This way forward will help bridge the gap to vaccination by continuing to protect hospital capacity while prioritizing getting our kids back in the classroom and supporting Minnesotans’ quality of life.”
Under Tri-City United’s plan, students would return to school in three phases and go back to the learning models they were in before they moved to distance learning.
The first phase of students includes preschoolers and kindergartners returning to in-person learning. Grades 1-3 would go back to the hybrid A group and B group schedule. Students receiving special services would also return in the first phase with level 3 students going to the classroom every day and levels 1 and 2 learning through the hybrid model.
Students identified as “at-risk” and struggling with distance learning by teachers and principals would also return to school in the first phase.
In the second phase, grades 4-6 would return to the hybrid A/B model. Students new to the country that are not currently on a schedule would also be able to be back in class. Certain hands-on high school courses like welding would also be made available for in-person learning. In phase three, all students would be back at school.
The first phase of the plan could kick in as early as January depending on the county case rates and student and staff infections, said Seifert. If possible, the TCU School Board could hold a special meeting on Jan. 4 to establish a timeframe, allowing the the first group of students to return to school on Monday, Jan. 11 or Tuesday Jan. 19 to allow teachers to use Martin Luther King Jr. Day for planning.
Seifert did not establish a potential timeline for the second and third phases of the plan.
“What we’re looking at right now is the unknown of what does the next two to three weeks hold for us,” said Seifert. “But we also know that we need to get some of our kids back and Le Sueur County Public Health is aware of that and our focus is getting our earliest in.”
Safety is not the only concern that could prevent the school from returning to hybrid learning. TCU may not even have the staffing and student capacity to keep the school open if the virus continues to spread. In the first two weeks of December, the school district has heard reports of two staff members and 11 students that have confirmed cases of COVID.
“When you look at that, there would be a significant amount of quarantining going on if we were in a hybrid model right now,” said Seifert.
School Board reactions to the plan were positive. Member Ashley Rosival believed the phase-in plan could be a safe option for the district as long as the administration kept in communication with Le Sueur County Public Health and continued to allow parents to choose between hybrid and distance learning for their child.
“I heard a lot of parents are struggling now and you have to weigh the mental health issues with the other risks,” said Rosival. “So keeping in mind those special needs kids or even kids that are really struggling and mentally struggling, and reaching out to those families.”
School Board Chair Marsha Franek was also supportive, expressing a desire to get kids back in school as soon as it is safe to do so.
“Not that I want us to go all in, but these kids need to be in school for the mental, social and emotional part of things and do it as safely as we possibly can,” said Franek. “I would like to go with plans and be aggressive as far as the plan goes, but do it and have the support of everyone involved.”
The School Board may also become more involved in the conversations Tri-City United is having with Le Sueur County Public Health. Board Member Michelle Borchardt pushed for the board to take a more active role by having members attend the meetings and report back to the full board.
“I know lots of us are getting parent emails, calls and text messages and Facebook messages and I think we need to be more involved at that level,” said Borchardt. “I feel like maybe we’re not hearing everything we need to hear and I want to make sure that we’re a part of it.”
The Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners has approved a new budget for the year 2021, which comes with a 4% increase to the county tax levy.
The finalized levy was reduced from the 4.5% preliminary levy increase approved by the Board of Commissioners in September and will pay for approximately $24 million of the county’s $56 million budget, the rest of which is funded through state aid. For a $500,000 household, the levy amounts to a $22 increase in taxes.
“Our rates are changing like this basically due to two reasons,” said County Administrator Darrell Pettis. “One is the increase in the levy and the other is the increase in the value of the residential home and also the increasing construction.”
Added funds this year include $147,000 for the Road and Bridge Department. The biggest projects set for completion include the County Road 22 reconstruction project south of the city of Le Sueur. The county is entering phase two of the project in 2021, completing reconstruction on 3.5 miles of roadway and 30 intersections in Le Sueur. The department is also setting aside funds to rehabilitate County Road 3 between Montgomery and New Prague. Combined, the two projects make up a total $16 million of the $23 million budgeted for the Road and Bridge Department.
The biggest factors pushing up county expenses are yearly cost of living adjustments (COLA) for staff and a 7.5% increase to health insurance costs. This is the first time the county has increased its insurance contribution since 2017.
The county will also be using additional tax dollars to map county terrain using aerial photography and lidar technology. Pettis said it had been four years since the county last funded a flight, which will help the county calculate elevations, terrain and topography. The project will cost an estimated $250,000 — $100,000 comes from the levy while $150,000 would come from other county resources.
Another project being funded is the county’s contribution to the border-to-border partnership with Bevcomm. Le Sueur County will put nearly $300,000 toward a fiber optic network built by Bevcomm, which received state funding in February. The network will make it possible for the county to connect approximately 417 unserved households in Derrynane, northern parts of Lexington, parts of Lanesburgh, southeast of Heidelberg, and the northern edges of Montgomery Township. Half of the county’s spending will be paid back by benefiting townships over the next 10 years.