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The East Texas town of Marshall plunged into economic darkness in 1986 after one of the region’s top employers closed its doors.
More than 3,000 people lost their jobs when the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant was shuttered. Then came the domino effect: Marshall businesses directly tied to the plant couldn’t generate enough revenue to stay open. Businesses that did stay open fought for their lives as residents curtailed spending, especially on such extravagances as eating out and going to the beauty salon.
The area’s unemployment rate more than quadrupled, surpassing 20 percent. (The first sign of trouble actually came in 1983, when the Marshall Alcoa plant, which employed about 500 people who made aluminum cable, began phasing down operations and closed by 1986). As local businesses went under, the town’s newspaper, the Marshall News Messenger, lost 17 of its top 22 retail accounts during George Smith’s first 18 months as publisher. Christmas, suffice to say, was weighted with heaviness that year.
But Smith refused to accept the New Year’s forecast of more gloom and doom. In a January 1987 editorial, he described his vision of “Marshall’s square, every tree, every bush, decorated with tiny white lights.” He further wrote: “It could be a spectacle that would rival any other Christmas lighting scene in this area. Think about it. We could make it happen.”
Looking ahead to the next Christmas almost a year away, Smith imagined the Harrison County courthouse, the crown jewel of Marshall’s town square, aglow with lights. He even dabbed dots of white correction fluid all over a courthouse photograph to illustrate his idea. Smith drummed up enthusiasm for his dream, but he and other city officials lacked the money to make it come true.
Then came help from a star: Wendy Russell Reves, a Marshall native who found fame during the 1940s as a fashion model in New York City and Paris. Reves, living in France in 1987, received a copy of Smith’s editorial from a former schoolmate. Moved by Smith’s vision, Reves responded: “Have your wish,” she wrote the newspaper publisher, enclosing a $25,000 check.
Reves’ generosity, plus the benevolence of residents who helped Smith and a small team raise an additional $70,000, dispelled the darkness. That same year, a well-orchestrated Christmastime sprinkling of lights enticed travelers on Interstate 20 to slow down and leisurely drive through town. Through the years, the event evolved into an East Texas cultural event now considered the granddaddy of Texas’ holiday light galas: the , which traditionally ends December 31.
City officials estimate that the festival, celebrating its 27th anniversary this year, features 10 million lights. The courthouse alone glitters with more than 100,000 white lights as part of a nightly synchronized light and music show. Organizers and residents coordinate lights and music all over town, and the Marshall Symphony Orchestra performs as part of the attractions that include double-decker bus tours, carriage rides, hayrides, outdoor ice skating and Snowflake, the 14-foot-tall wooden rocking horse who beckons young and old alike with lights illuminating its creamy palomino color.
Geraldine Mauthe, director of visitor services for Marshall’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it’s been a wonderful, wild ride watching the festival grow from such humble beginnings. “It is Marshall’s gift to the world,” she says.
Mauthe notes that Marshall’s population, about 27,000 before the economic downturn and now hovering around 23,500, has not fully rebounded. But the town, thanks to millions of lights, has come back to life.
Festival after festival, Mauthe looks on the bright side. “I think, ‘Now next year, we’ve got to do so and so …’ ” she says. “I don’t worry about the lights going off because I know they’ll come back on a year later.”
Camille Wheeler is an Austin writer.