So beautiful… .
“You’ve seen it all”
"When you’ve seen this, you’ve seen it all."
That simple statement from a European visitor to Blount County’s Palisades Park, who had visited numerous federal and state parks across the country, summed up what Park Manager Jeff Todd hears repeatedly — especially throughout the Christmas season.
While many other parks and municipalities have special Christmas lights programs, Blount’s is one of the few which allows individuals, churches and civic groups to decorate spots themselves AND which opens the entire spectacle on a FREE, donation-only basis.
"I think that’s one reason people come back year after year," Jeff explained. "There’s always something different and something unusual. And in this economy, it’s something special families can do with their kids or older family members without breaking the bank."
While the talented park staff works about six weeks getting all their displays and around a million lights ready before the December first opening, families, churches and groups often begin months before planning just what they’ll use to make their individual displays special.
"A few years back we had an electrician who was out of work, so he decided to give back something special to the community," Jeff recalled. "He wound up moving an entire room from an old home here. You could drive by and it was just like you were experiencing Christmas in a country home from years ago. The old wood-burning stove. The tin roof. Grandma’s clothes hanging in the corner. It was special."
But sometimes it’s even the simple displays that make an impact. One man raised a one-man dome tent, lit an outline of Santa inside and had a blazing campfire outside which showcased Santa’s long-handled, red underwear hanging on the clothesline.
When the Christmas Lights began a decade ago, a local welder donated several Christmas figures made of bent iron to which the park staff added twinkling Christmas lights.
After closer examination, staff member Lynn Cuzzort, a welder, decided the park staff could make many more. Now there are Christmas figures, bears and other happy sights crafted by Lynn and Johnny Kelsoe, with lights carefully added by other staff members — Bobby Dunn, Anne Franks, Ronnie Rutledge and Don Kilgore — when other work is slow during the winter months.
"It’s been a learning experience," Todd said. "We’ve learned to wire the lights onto the figures instead of taping them to make them last indefinitely. Just little things make it easier for us to get the displays up and ready every year."
The approximate one-mile drive through the twinkling lights begins the night of December 1st and lasts through the 31st, closing only for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
(A surprise Christmas snow added special dazzle to the displays and lights last year, but did cause an additional night of closure to the park as well.)
Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus will be available for visits and photos in the Quilters Cottage in the park on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights December 9, 10 and 11, and December 16, 17 and 18. Refreshments in the Cottage will also be available those nights. The Cottage is located about halfway through the drive and is well-identified by signs.
Park board members include Chairman Bob Turley, Vice-Chair Eldridge Bynum, Secretary Marsha Beam, assistant Secretary Ramey Peters, and members Kenneth Wright, Linda Marsh and Sandy Holland.
The board members join the staff and volunteers in greeting visitors each night, handing out brochures about the park and taking donations. While donations are not required, any donations received stay within the park (which is owned by Blount County and overseen by the Park Board under the auspices of the Blount County Commission).
(Some of the past donations were recently used as the matching portion of grants enabling the building of two safe playgrounds to replace the aging equipment installed when the park was first built in the early 1970s.)
Last year, there were 53 displays from clubs and individuals with Art Iron Works earning Best of Show and the Palisades Park Staff receiving Honorable Mention. Ribbons are distributed in several categories.
This year, the 11th annual, there will be up to 75 exhibits in addition to the Park Staff’s displays and decorations of the exteriors of the historic Daniel Murphree log cabin, the old Compton School Building and the park’s three lodges, chapel and picnic areas.
Wright pointed out that being able to ride through the many exhibits and the fairyland of lights is especially enjoyed by busloads of older folks and those who are handicapped. Visitors are invited to make the rounding trip through the exhibits as many times as they’d like.
"I’ve had folks say they’ve come three or four times in one month, bringing other folks back to see it," Wright remarked.
Bynum always enjoys seeing folks who come back year after year.
"They have a curiosity. They just want to see what changes have been made," Bynum observed.
Todd said it’s just hard to put into words what the Christmas Lights at Palisades has meant through the years to so many people.
"I’ve seen elderly men cry at the sheer beauty they’ve enjoyed," Todd stated. "And, of course, we hear the laughter and the shouts of the younger kids when they see the lights rising out of the mountain mists. Photos just don’t capture the magic.
"It’s just amazing. You just have to be here. It’s just Christmas. That’s all you have to say."
The 80-acre Palisades Park is located about 5 miles north of Oneonta and about 7.5 miles south of Cleveland off U.S. Hwy 231. Take 231 to the Oneonta and Rosa City limits, turn on Ebell Road, go about 1.5 miles, turn on Palisades Parkway and go one mile.
From Birmingham, take I-59 north to the Tallapoosa Street Exit (Hwy 79). AL Hwy 79 north to Hwy 75 in Pinson and follow Hwy 75 north into Oneonta until its intersection with Hwy 231. Follow Hwy 231 North for about 3 miles and look for the brown park sign on the right for the turn to the park. Then follow the signs to the park.
From Gadsden take I-59 south to Exit 166. Take Hwy 231 North into Oneonta to the intersection with Hwy 75. Follow Hwy 231 North for 3 miles and follow the signs.
You can also get more information by phoning the park at (205) 274-0017 or checking out the website at www.blountcountypark.com.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County who can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com. She, Roy and all the critters at Old Field Farm wish everyone a blessed and peace-filled Christmas!