Volunteer spirit keeps display alive

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 30, 1999

Lillie DeShields is hoping to see a traffic jam on Canal Street in upcoming weeks. That may sound a bit odd, but it’s not unlikely.

DeShields, spokesperson for International Paper’s Natchez mill, hopes that thousands of people will drive through the Natchez Visitor Reception Center’s parking lot to view the legendary Christmas displays sponsored annually by the mill.

The displays, conceived and created by Lanus Hammack, are a Natchez tradition.

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&uot;I’d guess we’ve been doing the displays between 20 and 30 years,&uot; said DeShields. &uot;It’s as long as anybody can remember.&uot;

The animated masterpieces display a series of scenes — from the birth of Jesus Christ to Santa and his reindeer — that have delighted generations of local children.

&uot;I wish you could hear the stories,&uot; DeShields said. &uot;Last year, a family came down from Kansas City, Mo., just to see the displays … The father called before they came, and said that he remember seeing them as a child and wanted his children to see them, too.&uot;

Literally thousands of cars would drive by those displays at the Natchez mill each year. But even though the displays have been a tradition for &uot;as long as anybody can remember,&uot; that tradition almost ended this year.

Workforce cutbacks and layoffs at the mill, in large part a reaction to unfavorable economic conditions, forced an unpopular decision.

&uot;We had made the decision not to do it this year because we need all the people we have to run the mill,&uot; DeShields said. &uot;And (the displays) are a labor-intensive project.&uot;

And, perhaps, a prayer was answered when representatives of the Natchez Visitor Reception Center approached DeShields and asked if the displays could be set up at the center this year.

&uot;It’s such a tradition,&uot; that staff members felt it needed to be continued for the community, said Connie Taunton, director of visitor services.

Besides, she added, with this year being the last before a new millennium, in many people’s standards, the staff wanted to provide a memorable experience at the center.

And, with a little sharing, some detailed coordination and a hefty dose of local in-kind donations, the displays were trucked from storage at Riverside Central Services to the center’s parking lot at the corner of Canal Street and John R. Junkin Drive.

&uot;We’ve had so many people working on this project,&uot; Taunton said.

People like electrician David Cauthen; Rusty Marks with Riverside Central Services; National Park Service employees Samuel Ikard and Ron Gant; IP retiree Mark Allen; and visitor center employees Orshay Seals and Wayne Griffin.

For some, the inspiration was simply passing along a favorite tradition to new generations of Natchez youngsters, Taunton said.

And, beginning tonight, that tradition continues.

From nightfall to sunrise, Santa and his reindeer will be flying; the beloved snow-covered town will switch between morning and nighttime; and the Christ child will be lit in glorious display at the center.

Anyone — and everyone — is welcome to drive through the center’s parking lot to view the displays … you can spend five minutes or half an hour watching the intricate movements of the displays.

For some folks, it’s a reminder of the simpler joys of the holiday season. For all of us, it’s another reason to celebrate the talents and gifts shared by members of our community.

Stacy Graning is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 446-5172 ext. 239 or via e-mail at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com.