Published in the Daily Register 12/20/2010.
Claude Houk has 85,000 reasons to like the Christmas season.
That’s the number of blinking, flashing and strobing lights strung up on decorations he designed at his mother’s Washington Street home.
About five blocks away on Brooks Street, Tim Baggot is planning the next 20-foot custom-made “Happy Holidays” sign he is going to bring out next year. He’ll hang it somewhere between his 22-foot “Merry Christmas” sign and his glowing Santa strung on a clothesline levitating over his backyard.
The do-it-yourself attitude, combined with the desire to outdo the dazzling competition, has driven these two handymen to turn Christmas decorating into a yearlong hobby and test of ingenuity.
“I’m a Christmas decorating nut,” said Houk, who has filled most of his mother Pat Foust’s yard with light displays shaped like reindeer, snowmen and presents.
Baggot takes his celebration, and his handiwork, seriously.
“Everybody knows (my) house, which I am very proud of,” he said.
Don’t mess with Mega Tree
The last time Portage held a Christmas lights contest, the Foust family won. That was about 30,000 light bulbs ago.
Since then Claude Houk, a retired Army maintenance worker, has added a garage-sized Santa face and a blinking helicopter complete with St. Nick to his ever-growing world of shining decorations.
The secret to the display is Claude’s own Santa’s workshop – his tool shed. As a point of pride, and frugality, Claude makes almost all of the pieces.
He’s particularly proud of his Santa face. He printed a drawing of Santa from the Internet and laid the image on an overhead projector, casting the design onto a bedsheet he hung from his wall.
He traced the image’s lines – the curve of Santa’s hat, the lines of his beard – onto the sheet, and from that outline he cut the garage-door sized design. Outline in hand, he bent and soldered steel pieces to give Santa his grin. When the frame was completed, he and his mother strung lights on their giant jolly elf.
This year’s biggest addition to the Foust display is the “Mega Tree,” a 10,000-bulb “tree” that flashes to music that the family sends over shortwave radio on FM channel 99.3.
As soon as the family flips on the lights at 4:30 p.m., cars are lined up outside 501 Washington St. for classic Christmas tunes and the dazzling display.
Houk spent 100 hours syncing the 40 minutes of music to the dancing light show. But the work is well worth it, he said.
“They love it and showing all of this is heaven.”
Bigger is better
At 5 p.m., Tim Baggot rushes home from work and calls up his daughter Kayla.
“We need to turn on the lights!” he shouts.
Tim Baggot, who can’t walk through his front door because of the lit-up Christmas tree blocking it, rushes across a lane he shoveled in his lawn to his back door and runs to the basement to plug in a giant extension cord and hit two switches on his fuse box.
With the last switch on, electricity surges into Portage’s biggest “Merry Christmas” sign, which blasts out light from Baggot’s 130 Brooks St. home.
Given the right light and angle, you can see his sign from downtown, said Baggot, who loves to talk about his handiwork.
Baggot made the 22-foot sign completely from scratch at Portage Body Shop where he works. He unrolled yards of chicken wire onto a frame he hammered together with wood from Portage Lumber. Then he and Kayla strung ropes of lights into the cursive “M-e-r-r-y C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.”
“December first is my day because I get to plug them in,” Baggot said pointing out the several strings of lights connected to homemade extension cords. “Next year, ‘Happy Holidays’ will be strung on the side of the house.”
Baggot said his display is only going to grow. He and Kayla drive around, scoping out the competition for fresh ideas.
“I have about 500 bulbs,” he said. “I need to have 500,000.”