Wonderland of Lights was a flash of inspiration in dark days
MARSHALL — George S. Smith wrote more than 3,500 editorials as a newspaper editor and publisher, but just one was enough to change his life and light up a town for decades.
That January 1987 editorial in The Marshall News Messenger offered a flash 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.
It brought a town on its knees to its feet, and the result--a holiday festival known as Wonderland of Lights--has been making spirits bright ever since.
It should have been inconceivable. Marshall did not celebrate a happy new year in 1987. Two of the region's top employers had shuttered plants employing thousands. Joblessness skyrocketed from 2.5 to over 20 percent.
"In my first 18 months at the News Messenger, we lost 17 of our top 22 retail accounts--out of business," Smith said, looking back on his years as publisher in Marshall. "Everyone was pretty much depressed, myself included."
On a January morning as bleak as the town's outlook, Smith walked across Marshall's town square on business, glancing up at the 1901 Harrison County Courthouse as he passed. It was closed for business, like too many of the storefronts around it, but for just an instant, Smith saw the landmark strung with holiday lights.
He was carried away in a flash of inspiration. Already halfway there, Smith made a b-line for the office of J.C. Hughes, then assistant city manager. Smith tried to explain: he wanted to deck the town square, indeed the whole town, in lights for the holidays, holidays that were almost a year away.
Hughes couldn't see it. Undaunted, Smith returned to his newsroom, printed a photo of the courthouse, and dotted it with white-out to simulate the lights. He marched back across the square, and when he returned to pen his News Messenger editorial, city hall was on board.
"I can count on the fingers of one hand how many editorials in 45 years in the newspaper business caused people to rise up and get something done," Smith said. This would be one.
In it Smith made a Christmas wish--that the town would rally around the holiday celebration he envisioned. Support came, if from an unexpected locale.
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 gotten a copy of Smith's editorial from school chum Mildred Carlile. She responded with a note that read simply, "Have your wish," and enclosed a $25,000 check.
With money in the bank, Smith, Hughes, Carlile and a handful of believers pounded the pavement, converting or circumventing nay-sayers and roadblocks to raise more than $70,000 in the worst local economy Marshall had ever seen. They would raise more than money in bringing Wonderland of Lights to life that first year.
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 décor ranging from holiday scenes made of lights strung on chicken wire frames to Nativity figures custom made by Marshall Pottery and a 45-foot, live Christmas tree decorated by local school kids. 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 followed lights seen from the highway. "Patti Harris, the chamber of commerce director, and I chased it down and got on board. That was our first guided tour," he said, one of countless tours Smith and other volunteers would lead over the years.
"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, he said, remembering a woman who pulled into the town square one night in a beaten up station wagon. Her children quickly scattered among the square's attractions, but their mother slumped to the curb. Smith hurried over and asked, "Ma'am, are you o.k.?"
"Oh, yeah," she said, crying. "This is just so beautiful. It takes my breath away."
Smith sat down next to her, and she told him 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.
It was too much for Smith and the people of Marshall.
"Within three days, she had a job, a Christmas tree, and the children had all the presents they could possibly desire," Smith said through tears of his own. "There are dozens of stories like that. It's not about the lights; it's about the people."
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 24th annual Wonderland of Lights opens Nov. 24 and runs through Jan. 2, when more than a million lights in hundreds of displays will showcase historic Marshall in a 40-day festival with an incremental economic impact of up to $2 million.
Architecture and history buffs can't miss docent tours of the 1901 Harrison County Courthouse that inspired Smith. It returned to life as a working hall of government this year and is open to public tours for the first time in more than a decade.
A lot has changed in 24 years. Smith moved on, left the news business and now lives in Cabot, AR. J.C. Hughes is back in town, and he carries the torch for Wonderland founders in this year's celebration.
Some things never change, like the sense of wonder that first Wonderland of Lights sparked in Smith.
"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 www.visitmarshalltexas.org or call the Marshall Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800)270-2749. Media should contact Diane Wolfe at (817)577-1779 or email@example.com more information, interviews, photographs or video.
Wonderland of Lights is produced under the direction of Center Stage Productions, a newly formed organizing committee representing the Marshall Convention & Visitors Bureau, the City of Marshall and Marshall Festivals. Sponsors of the 24th annual Wonderland of Lights include Samsung, Steve and Penny Carlile/Celebrating Home, McKool Smith, Capital One Bank, Network Communications, East Texas Baptist University, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Good Shepherd Medical Center, Bancorp South, The Marshall News Messenger, KMHT, Design Media, Brownrigg Insurance, Camterra Resources, Knuckols-Duvall-Hallum & Co., Lewis Engineering, Logan & Whaley, The Made-Rite Company, Marshall Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Marshall Toyota, Panola National Bank, Mary Fitts, Flo Jasper, Ken and Celia Carlile, Jeff and Kim Scrivener, Dr. and Mrs. George Bennett, and Dr. and Mrs. R. Orin Littlejohn.