MARSHALL, Texas, Nov. 3, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- When Wonderland of Lights opens here Nov. 23, it will rekindle a beacon of hope and hometown pride lit 25 years ago by a publisher's pen.
The holiday festival fills Marshall's town square with a million lights, a wonderland of family attractions and more than 125,000 visitors annually in a miracle on Washington Square that once was inconceivable.
An editorial in The Marshall News Messenger struck the spark of inspiration--the vision of "Marshall's square, every tree, every bush, decorated with tiny white lights"--during some of the darkest days in this East Texas town's history, and that light bulb moment has made spirits bright ever since.
It couldn't have come at a better time. By January 1987, two major employers had pulled out of East Texas, leaving thousands jobless. Unemployment skyrocketed from 2.5 to more than 20 percent.
"In my first 18 months at the News Messenger, we lost 17 of our top 22 retail accounts--out of business," George S. Smith said, looking back on his years as editor and publisher of the local paper. "Everyone was pretty much depressed, myself included."
On a January morning as bleak as the economic outlook, Smith walked across Marshall's town square on business, glancing up at the 1901 Harrison County Courthouse as he passed. It, too, was closed, but for an instant, Smith saw the landmark glittering with holiday lights.
The vision stopped him in his tracks.
Already halfway there, Smith made a beeline for the office of J.C. Hughes, then assistant city manager. He told Hughes that he wanted to deck the courthouse, the town square, indeed the whole town, in lights for the holidays, holidays that were almost a year away. Hughes couldn't see it, but Smith was undaunted.
"He found a black-and-white photo of the courthouse and--honest to goodness--he took liquid paper and put about a thousand dots all over this picture to represent the lights, came right back to my office, and laid it on my desk," Hughes recalls.
He couldn't help laughing, but Hughes was sold.
"George said, 'how're you going to do it?' I told him, 'just tell me what you want, and I'll figure out a way to get there,'" Hughes said. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
With city hall on board, the publisher returned to his office and began to write.
Smith would pen more than 3,500 editorials as a newspaper editor and publisher; just one would be enough to change his life and light up a town for decades. The editorial he wrote in January 1987 made a wish that the town would rally around a holiday celebration designed to rekindle the spirit of Christmas. The reaction would be no less than astonishing.
A publisher gets many letters; Smith had one coming he'll never forget. Arts patron Wendy Russell Reves, a Marshall native living in France, had received a copy of his editorial from school chum Mildred Carlile and responded with a note that read simply, "Have your wish." She enclosed a $25,000 check.
They were in business. With money in the bank, Smith, Hughes, Mrs. Carlile and a handful of believers pounded the pavement, raising more than $70,000 in the worst local economy Marshall had ever seen.
Marshall gave more than money. An army of volunteers, many working on company time with their employers' blessing, created displays out of sheer ingenuity. A lot of differences were set aside to make it work, Hughes said.
"Everyone from every corner of this community got involved," Hughes said. "You'd see people who normally could not work together side by side, helping to put a display up. That showed you the spirit--we may have differences of opinion, but when it comes right down to it, we're going to step up and get this done," Hughes said.
A few days before Thanksgiving, the courthouse and town square had been strung with the best lights they could buy, and Marshall was brimming with hand-crafted Christmas decor. Smith and Hughes turned on the lights.
"I sat down on the curb across from the Hotel Marshall and cried like a baby," Smith said. "It was the most exhausting and fulfilling thing in my life."
Marshall lit a beacon, and people came. Smith remembers the first tour bus--it had seen the lights from the highway. Many more would follow.
"My own speech over and over again was that it was never about lights. It was about the spirit of the holidays, and you keep that spirit all year long," Smith said. "People would say, 'come see the lights at Marshall.' No, come see the Marshall spirit."
That spirit seemed to shine a little brighter during Wonderland of Lights, Smith and Hughes agreed, remembering a woman who pulled into the town square one night in a battered station wagon. Her three children quickly scattered among the square's attractions, but their mother slumped down on the courthouse steps, sobbing. Hughes and Smith hurried over and asked, "Ma'am, are you o.k.?"
"Oh, yeah," she said. "This is just so beautiful. It takes my breath away."
They sat down next to her, and she told them the family had come from a neighboring town every night, night after night. Her husband had left her, she had no job, no money and the family was facing eviction. There would be no gifts for the children, no Christmas tree, and soon there would be no home.
"This is my kids' Christmas," she told Smith.
At that moment, Hughes said, the true meaning of the festival came to light.
"That they could be so happy with so little . . .," Hughes said, choking back tears of his own many years later. "After she left, George and I set on the steps and cried."
The duo spread the word, and within days the mother had a job and gifts for her children from people all over town.
Today Wonderland of Lights is one of the largest holiday light celebrations in the United States, and more than 125,000 visitors make coming to Marshall a holiday tradition. The 25th annual Wonderland of Lights opens Nov. 23 and runs through Jan. 1. More than a million lights in hundreds of displays will showcase historic Marshall in the 40-day festival, which has an incremental economic impact of up to $2 million.
A lot has changed in 25 years. Smith moved on, left the news business and now lives in Cabot, AR. Hughes is back in town, and he carries the torch for Wonderland founders in this year's celebration, along with Mildred Carlile's son, Steve.
Carlile, a Marshall native and chairman of the Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau, is at no loss to explain the magic of his hometown holiday.
"I've seen the holidays in a lot of places, but it's magical in a small town," he said. "So many people have strong feelings about the Christmas story—feelings of friendship, fellowship, goodwill toward men--and when you come to Marshall and see Wonderland of Lights, you begin to think these things are possible. You'd like to bottle this and let everyone have a taste of it."
Smith couldn't agree more.
"In a way, Wonderland of Lights changed my life," he said. "I never again thought that anything was impossible. In the worst economy in East Texas that anyone could remember, the citizens did the impossible and started a festival that, in my opinion, changed the city landscape, attitude and personality forever."
For more information, visit Marshall, Texas online at http://www.visitmarshalltexas.org/ or call the Marshall Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800)270-2749.
SOURCE Marshall Convention & Visitors Bureau