The Festival of Lights is Oglebay’s crown jewel, and on Thursday, Nov. 8, it went live for its 33rd year. That’s a lot of years, a lot of light and a lot of excited young faces hanging out car windows. Many of those faces now sit in the driver’s seat with a car full of their own first-time festival-viewers.
It’s hard to find something about the Festival of Lights that hasn’t already been written. By now, most residents know it features over a million lights. That’s true, but Oglebay doesn’t have an exact number; they just know it’s enormous. Truth be told, they’re working so hard on the festival itself that no one has had time to count or calculate the precise number of twinkly bulbs out there on the hilltops.
Perhaps Wheeling residents take the festival for granted after so many years. In fact, we may find ourselves grumbling about the traffic on a Saturday night. Perhaps we forget how we felt the first time we drove through the show, or the way it looks during a snowfall or under a clear night dotted with winter stars. Amidst the rush of the holidays, we tend to lose sight of the spirit of the season itself and the reason we return to our unique family traditions year after year. For so many, one of those traditions is a drive through the Festival of Lights.
The Famous Festival
I’ve traveled around the country, and whenever I tell people I’m from Wheeling, West Virginia, someone inevitably pipes up.
“Oh, we used to visit Oglebay Park. The Festival of Lights!”
“My parents take a bus tour every year from three states away to see the lights.”
“I remember Wheeling. That’s the light show, right? We took our grandkids there when they were little.”
I’ve met Oregonians, Floridians and Wisconsin cheese-heads who know the Festival of Lights. And though there are other light displays in the U.S., Oglebay’s seems to stand out as one of the most beloved due to its iconic park surroundings. We’ve got 300 acres devoted to our tradition.
A Year-Round Effort
Curt Byrum is Oglebay’s director of facility maintenance. He was kind enough to take an hour out of his busy schedule to give me a behind-the-scenes look at the Festival of Lights. I caught up to him at his office in the facilities management building. It’s an out-of-the-way spot across from Crispin, but it’s the headquarters of the park’s maintenance program. As I pulled in, a truck pulled out with familiar light displays in its bed; it was one week from opening night.
There are, on average, 365 days in a calendar year, and on any one of these, someone at Oglebay is probably working on the Festival of Lights (FOL). Depending on the season, crews may be assembling displays, disassembling them, maintaining, repairing, or designing and building new ones. There is no “Festival of Lights season,” because it’s ongoing, always. Crews begin to erect the displays in mid-to-late autumn. This is crunch time. Once the festival is underway, things actually calm down, a bit. A crew member is always on-call, ready to make repairs or change bulbs or tinker with an electrical issue, and at the same time, they’re also busy delivering firewood to cabins and performing other winter park duties. When the lights go out in January, the displays come down, go into storage, and planning for the next year starts. And so it goes, each year.
“It’s is a never-ending, year-round process,” Byrum told me. “The planning for the next year starts as soon as this year’s lights are lit up. We’ll gather a group, what we call an FOL committee of different staff members. There’s probably 10 or 12 of us. We’ll take a bus ride through the show this year. We’ll have a lead person taking notes on everybody’s comments, and it will help us fine tune the next show and also will give us ideas for changes we might want to make. And then that committee will meet probably once a month. And then as it gets closer, you know, this time of year, we’re meeting every couple weeks.”
There are a lot of moving parts. Each year as displays are moved and changed, the marketing department updates maps. The weather plays a big role — it can help or hinder the crew’s efforts considerably. This year, Byrum said, excessive rain put everything behind schedule.
“There’s some years that it’s a race to the finish. But we do make an effort to keep the show fresh. The amazing thing is that people come back, year after year, from afar.”
This year, some larger displays moved. That’s not normally done because it’s so difficult and time consuming. Visitors will notice that the Twelve Days of Christmas has moved from Speidel to the park’s entrance. It was a lot of work for the crew, but Byrum stressed how important it is to offer changes in perspective.
He said, “One big change we’ve made this year is the Pine Room area, which we had developed over the last couple years but never really panned out. We just weren’t getting the traffic down there. The Christmas Shop was down there in the tennis shop, and it just wasn’t getting the traffic because it was basically off the [main] route. We’ve returned the Christmas Shop to Speidel, which was historically where it had been. It gives people a place to stop, there are restrooms out there, there’s food, and it’s just a nice interlude.”
The Pine Room formerly housed a small train for kids to ride. It’s been moved to the new Winter Carnival area at Levenson Shelter, just beyond the zoo. Visitors can enjoy a wagon ride that follows a route down into the back of the zoo, past more light displays. In that vein, the Good Zoo is proud to introduce its new RGB Light & Music Extravaganza on the patio. Byrum told me the park has invested in this technology — the individual bulbs change color — to keep the festival competitive with other high-tech shows. The RGB show will be programmed to the music of “The Nutcracker.”
Festival visitors who make a $25 donation will receive 3D glasses called “Sleigh Bans” (a humorous take on Ray-Ban eyewear) that enhance viewing of the park’s light displays. Also, since this is Oglebay’s 90th anniversary celebration, look for a special birthday-themed display designed by Woodsdale Elementary School student Lakin Chambers, who flipped the switch Thursday night.
Behind the Scenes
If you’re curious to know what goes on behind the scenes, I’ll describe it for you. Behind an unassuming yellow house near Crispin sits the maintenance area. This is where the crew stores most of the displays during the year. Some displays spend the summer in an empty greenhouse; others lean against buildings or lie on flatbed trailers, where heat and sunlight tend to break down the ties that hold the light strings to the metal display frames, necessitating extra maintenance. Byrum told me he hopes to have a proper warehouse for the displays in the future, but for now, the crew keeps them wherever they find space. That’s getting trickier, as the total number is over 90 displays now.
The inside of the maintenance building looks a lot like my family’s garage, actually, with spools of light strings and boxes of bulbs, but on a much larger scale, of course. In the greenhouse, ironically, lurk electric flowers; you’ll soon see them “growing” in the Gardens of Light (near the arboretum) and hanging in baskets. Most of the greenhouse has emptied out, though; the crews have been working at a furious pace.
Harry Himrod is the Festival of Lights supervisor. He makes it happen, every year. For many years, he told me, high school welding students put the displays together in class, and electronics classes used to program the animation.
“We relied on them a lot, back in the beginning,” Himrod said. Now, Wilhelm Welding in Valley Grove does the work, as it got to be too much for welding classes to tackle. Himrod also told me about the switch from incandescent lights to LED lights. It was a smart move, as 180,000 incandescent bulbs needed to be replaced each year. LED displays appear more vivid, and the lights last longer.
Himrod is a vast wealth of FOL knowledge after 55 years with the park. He told me a lot about circuits and wattage and amps, but I’m afraid it went way over my head. He was there on Dec. 2, 1985, when the original five light displays turned on for the first time. Byrum told me that, as Harry approaches retirement age, the crew is trying to extract as much Festival of Lights knowledge as they can from his brain.
“He is the blood and guts and heart and soul of FOL,” Byrum said. “He’s made it happen. Without him, I would be lost.” Fortunately, Himrod has been passing on what he knows to his crew, and when he’s been temporarily absent, they’ve done a good job of filling his shoes. It’s a team effort.
It’s time to come clean: this writer hasn’t seen the Festival of Lights for several years. It was easy to tell myself that a trip to Oglebay meant loud kids in the back seat and the agonizing possibility of brotherly fisticuffs in a line of parked cars. This year, I’ve chosen to look at it differently. The holidays are a time to pull back, to take a breath and center ourselves. It’s tough to do that when we’re in line at the grocery store or rushing through town (shop local!). Within the confines of the car, however, I’m in control. The kids have nowhere to go, and as we drive, we talk. We really talk to each other. Home may be where we dwell, but the car is where we truly converse. I can point out the candy canes and tell them about the first time I saw the same display at age 6. I can tell them about my grandparents, who lived across from the driving range and the big star visible from their living room. We can talk about anything at all or simply sit quietly together. It’s the together that matters.
On March 8, 1887, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer ran an article about the moment electric light arrived in Wheeling. It read:
The Edison incandescent electric lights were ablaze last night for the first time in this city. To say those who have put the lights in were pleased with the result is stating it mildly. The light is a pure, soft white light, as steady as daylight. For the first trial, the current worked with unexpected success. Last night’s start was only an experimental one, the lights being turned on merely to regulate them and arrange the burners to the best advantage. They attracted a great deal of attention and were commended on all sides as the best light, all things considered, ever seen in Wheeling.
The writer couldn’t have known how true his words would be, again, when the first Oglebay holiday lights winked on, 98 years later.
“The introduction of the light is a good thing for the town,” he wrote, of that day.
Indeed, it has been.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.