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.
Businesses in Le Sueur and Nicollet counties are advised to update their information with the state in anticipation of receiving funding via a new round of COVID-19 relief grants.
First, the state will award grants with direct payments. On Dec. 14, the Minnesota Department of Revenue was authorized to distribute $88 million to restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, bowling alleys, bars, and fitness/recreation centers to receive direct payments from the state. A second round of direct payments will go to movie theaters and civic centers.
It is critical for businesses to log into their accounts with the state to confirm or update their information, because the payments are based on business type, number of employees and sales tax loss data. These state grants will range in size from $10,000 to $45,000.
To verify business addresses, log into e-Services at mndor.state.mn.us/tp/eservices/_/.
If you have questions about your business category or number of employees, check with Minnesota Unemployment Insurance, uimn.org.
These steps are important for business owners because of how the state will evaluate and notify businesses of the grants. “We will determine what businesses are eligible and their aid amount based on sales tax and unemployment records as of Nov. 1, 2020,” the state said.
Then, eligible businesses will be notified via their e-Services account by Dec. 31. Payments will then be mailed in early January to the main address on the sales tax account.
The Minnesota Legislature also approved $660,000 for grants to small businesses and nonprofits to be administered by Nicollet County, while Le Sueur County will receive over $556,000 for the same purpose.
Nicollet County Administrator Ryan Krosch confirmed the county will be establishing a new business grant program, but it is waiting on more funding details from the state, and the Board of Commissioners will work out the specifics of the program, likely at a Jan. 5 work session and meeting.
Look out for further updates in the St. Peter Herald and at the county website, co.nicollet.mn.us.
Nicollet County had two rounds of CARES business grants in the fall. In the first round, the county distributed 69 grants for a total of $609,000. In the second round, it awarded 20 grants for a total of $165,000. That’s 89 grants and about $774,000 overall.
Le Sueur County is continuing its contract with Next Stage, the firm that processed the CARES Act funds last fall. Le Sueur County has begun planning for distribution of funds, coordinating with the state of Minnesota’s Department of Revenue. Little details have been received at this time.
Business owners can look out for further information and updates about the county program in the Le Sueur County News and on the county’s website at co.le-sueur.mn.us/603/Small-Business-COVID-19-Information.
Utilizing federal CARES Act funding, Le Sueur County awarded grants (worth up to $10,000) to 56 businesses operating in the county this fall, with a grand total of over $500,000 in small business grants. The CARES Act funding ended Dec. 1.
The St. Peter School District is prepared to start bringing students back into schools for in-person learning, but it won’t happen immediately and plans remain tentative as COVID-19 numbers continue to change.
A new learning model plan, approved by the St. Peter School Board at its Dec. 21 meeting, calls for early learners to return to full in-person learning first (Jan. 11), followed by elementary students (Jan. 19), and then, depending on county rates, middle and high school students (potentially February). The plan comes off the back of new guidance from the state of Minnesota, which emphasizes getting the youngest students back into schools.
Recent data, public health experts say, indicate that middle and high school students are impacted by and react to the virus similarly to adults, while younger children are less likely to spread the virus and do so at slower rates. There is also evidence to indicate that elementary students are most impacted by the lack of in-person learning opportunities.
“They really want to see the younger students back, much like we all do, so they’re not so much focusing on the county level data for the lower grade levels,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said of the state’s guidance.
Under the current plan, as school returns in early January, early learners would remain in distance mode for a week, starting Jan. 4.
“The (COVID-19 regional support team) really wants to see a bit more distance from that holiday period,” Gronseth said.
There would be no school for early learners Thursday, Jan. 7 or Friday, Jan. 8, as teachers plan for a return to in-person learning. The students would then return to school Jan. 11.
The class sizes would be smaller than usual, but all students would be attending every day.
Students at South Elementary and North Elementary would have no school Monday, Jan. 4 and Tuesday, Jan. 5, as teachers begin transition planning.
Students would then moved into hybrid learning, starting Jan. 6. This would be the same A group and B group model that has been used in the district previously, where one group attends school Mondays and Wednesday, while the other group attends Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Then after a teacher work day Jan. 18, all elementary students would begin attending class in person daily Tuesday, Jan. 19.
The plan is less solid at the middle and high school levels. Students in these age groups are more likely to spread the virus, according to public health data, so their return to class is more closely tied to local case rates.
Current data shows case rates dropping in local counties, including Nicollet and Le Sueur, but they are still twice the rates of the recommended levels for even hybrid learning, nonetheless in-person.
“I think the general attitude is everyone wants the students back in the classroom; it’s just about the safest way to do it,” said Jody Fischenich, of Nicollet County Public Health.
Under the current plan, middle and high school students would begin in distance learning Jan. 4 for the first few days. They’d have no school Thursday, Jan. 8 and Friday, Jan. 9, as teachers worked on transition planning.
They would then move into hybrid learning Jan. 11, dependent on county case rates. While the elementary students move to all in-person learning by Jan. 19, the middle and high school students would continue in hybrid learning until the regional support team and the state give approval to move to in-person, possibly in February.
“We’re hopeful we can move ahead on that plan, but if the numbers are too high, we’ll have to pull back,” Gronseth said. “We are hopeful that all students can attend in person by some time in February.”
Before the School Board voted Dec. 21, a number of school community members spoke on the issue. Five adults and two students were included among the speakers.
Both of the students who spoke expressed a desire to remain in distance learning, as long as there is any question the virus could still be a danger to themselves or others. Isla Gassman said the district should choose to be safe, rather than taking any unnecessary risks.
“Frankly, teachers are doing a great job in a difficult time,” Gassman said. “If we went back to hybrid learning right now, our teachers are still at risk of catching COVID-19, and then they’d have to go home and get a substitute, and that substitute could still get it, and it could just go on and on.”
Eva Kracht shared the story of a classmate who lost her father to COVID-19. She felt it’s important to think about those students and families as decisions are made.
“This disease is ruthless and this disease is dangerous,” she said. “I ask of you tonight, as you cast your vote, to please consider the ramifications of your decision.”
The adults who spoke varied in opinion. Bill Weber said he was speaking on behalf of his children and many of his friends when he said “we really, really need to get our kids back in school.”
“My kids are done by noon every day, and then they’re playing video games or reading books or whatever, and they are just not getting what they need,” he said.
Cinde Wiebusch touted a holistic approach from the School Board, asking them to look beyond the basic facts and consider all evidence, as they work toward the ultimate goal of getting students back in school. Rita Rassbach, meanwhile, noted her husband is a physician in urgent care with Mayo and said the virus is as impactful as ever.
“We need to keep in mind that more people have died from COVID-19 than the past five flu seasons combined, and coronavirus is far more contagious,” she said.
The School Board went back and forth on the plan. Member Tracy Stuewe expressed frustration, feeling it wasn’t truly up the School Board and was instead a decision made by the regional support team (which advises districts in the area).
“It feels like if this or that is what we really want, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what they want,” she said.
Board Chair Ben Leonard said he understood her feelings on the issue, but he felt it’s a positive that the state is giving specific direction and there is some local control in the process. The district is actually looking to move to hybrid at the middle and high schools before case rates are likely to drop below the recommended levels for that learning model.
“I think we decided, as a school district, that we want to listen to state guidelines,” he said. “In some ways, this guidance is much more definitive than it was at the beginning of the year. Giving that regional team a chance to bend the rules, and this plan we’re looking at is bending some of those rules, I think there is some local control.”
Ultimately, the board approved the plan with an expressed desire to continue monitoring the COVID situation in local communities.