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Lighted displays help Christmas come to life every year along I-90

Wyman Duggan, left, and Joe Schorno look through one of the lighted Christmas decorations that line Interstate 90 from just west of Moses Lake to near George, Wash., on Wednesday. The men work for agriculture supplier Quincy Farm Chemicals, which maintains and puts up Christmas decorations along the freeway. The displays are powered by outlets built into center-pivot irrigation lines. (Jesse Tinsley)
Wyman Duggan, left, and Joe Schorno look through one of the lighted Christmas decorations that line Interstate 90 from just west of Moses Lake to near George, Wash., on Wednesday. The men work for agriculture supplier Quincy Farm Chemicals, which maintains and puts up Christmas decorations along the freeway. The displays are powered by outlets built into center-pivot irrigation lines. (Jesse Tinsley)

ALONG INTERSTATE 90 IN WASHINGTON – The stretch of interstate between Moses Lake and George can be a dark and empty place for night travelers most of the time. Not so between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

For years, holiday motorists headed over the river and through the mountains between Spokane and Seattle have been treated to an array of some 20 flashing light displays that seem to appear magically out of the plowed fields just beyond the frontage roads. Frosty the Snowman waves. Penguins slide down a hill. A locomotive pulls cars. A race car flashes. A man dodges a snowball.

Many travelers zoom by just grateful for a break in the landscape that diverts young passengers from demanding “When are we going to be there?” But some might wonder about the story behind the annual Country Christmas display.

It’s a story in two chapters.

Chapter One is the story of Scott Lybbert, a Quincy resident with a love of Christmas, an artistic bent and a knack for turning rebar and cast-off farm equipment into something special. Some 30 years ago, Lybbert was a farmworker whose job included tending center-pivot irrigation systems on a Grant County farm.

Those systems, which slowly roll in a circle as they spray a field, run on electricity. One December, Lybbert and a co-worker thought it would be fun to decorate the end of one for Christmas, so they got the farmer’s OK, bought a string of lights and rigged up a star.

“It was a pretty big hit at the time,” Lybbert said. They did that a couple of years in the row, and then Lybbert started playing with some lights, rebar and old potato digger chains to create a guy running from a snowball. He attached that creation to a pivot system on the highway between George and Ephrata. It was another hit, so Lybbert created a Santa.

Every year, he’d come up with a couple more designs, sketch them out on a shop floor on the farm where he worked, weld them together with cast-off metal pieces, string them with lights and find a farmer willing to let him hook them up. The family holiday project grew to about 20 lighted sculptures, with a growing number of weeks for creating, mending, transporting and installing.

“It took a toll after a time,” Lybbert said. “I almost started to hate Christmas, and it’s my favorite time of the year.”

One year, Lybbert was so sick he couldn’t put up the sculptures. People called and cussed him out. A Seattle woman called to complain that she had booked a bus to take people to Moses Lake to view the light sculptures and have dinner, and he was ruining the tour. He tried to explain he was ill, but she didn’t care.

“That’s when it started not being fun,” he said. “I knew then it needed to take a different shape.”

He contacted Ag-Formation, a George organization that may be best known for putting the signs in fences along the interstate that tell passing motorists what’s growing in the fields beyond.

That began Chapter Two of the light sculptures’ story, when they took on a life as a community project for Ag-Formation, the Quincy Rotary Club and Quincy Farm Chemicals (QFC), which agreed to store the sculptures for 11 months of the year, get them ready in November, put them up around Thanksgiving and collect them again around New Year’s.

Pete Romano of QFC said the company has as many as a dozen people who work for about a week to get the sculptures ready for viewing after sitting in a fenced storage lot for 11 months in the sun, wind and rain. “They’re pretty fragile, mostly iron bent and welded into place on old irrigation pipes. There’s a lot of wires and bulbs,” he said.

QFC is part of the McGregor Co., and President Alex McGregor gave QFC the green light years ago to take on the sculptures as a way to give back to the community over the holidays, Romano said.

The sculptures are mounted on trailers and towed to the same locations each year. A pivot system runs on 480 volts; a transformer on the designated machines brings the voltage down to 110 for a sculpture’s lights, and each farmer picks up the cost of the electricity.

The bulbs are the old T-7 models, with fine filaments, the kind that have mostly been replaced for residential displays by strings of tiny LED lights. On the plus side, when one T-7 burns out, the others on the string stay lit. On the minus side, they burn out quite a bit. People who travel regularly from George to Moses Lake, including QFC employees and their spouses, are quick to report any outages.

QFC’s Joe Schorno estimates he’s changed about 6,000 bulbs so far this year, which is about average. A supplier in Seattle sells them to the company at cost, about a quarter apiece, and the Rotary Club covers the bulb bill.

Once the sculptures are up, Schorno and Wyman Duggan do much of the ongoing maintenance. Sometimes, the wind will knock a sculpture over, and they’ll right it and maybe patch it back together. Sometimes the solid state timing systems that create the illusion of movement in the light strings will malfunction or burn out. There’s no computer chip controlling the strings, so adjustments are done by trial and error.

Last year, thieves stole the cords off some sculptures for metal in the wires. That almost knocked them out for the season, but the QFC staff got them rewired after “a few smoke shows in the shop,” said Schorno, who adds he’s not an electrician, just someone who’s been around electricity enough to be cautious of it.

Each sculpture has its own little quirks, which they’ve learned over Schorno’s eight years with the project and Duggan’s 18. Their favorite is the locomotive pulling carloads of toys, which is also among the most elaborate designs and “a real pain to keep going,” Duggan said.

Schorno agreed: “We’ve kind of bonded with that one.”

When they’re working on sculptures in a field, some passing motorists will honk and wave. Others will call QFC to report possible vandalism. “People are very protective,” Duggan said.

The company expects to keep putting them up, taking them down and maintaining the sculptures for as long as they last, although no one is sure how long that will be.

Lybbert, who now lives in Quincy and no longer has access to a farm shop and tools to make and maintain the sculptures, doesn’t plan to make any more. He’s glad that QFC and others in the community have taken on the project. Christmas is once again his favorite time of year.

Up close in the daylight, the sculptures don’t look like much – rusty metal draped with light cords and held together by rebar. Tumbleweeds gather under the trailers.

But as the sun goes down, the lights come on, the sculptures come alive and the sign in front of waving Frosty proclaims “Our Joy To You – The Quincy Valley.”

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