Friday, November 26, 1999

Rudd Farm lights up one last time

Sale will end million-light display

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BLUE CREEK, Ohio — Since 1969, when their Christmas display outgrew their Dayton home and they moved it to the hollows of Adams County, Carl and Judy Rudd have been a holiday team and tradition.

        One million lights. Two million visitors. A multitude of joy.

        Unfortunately, this year will be the last for the popular Rudd Christmas Farm. Mr. Rudd, now 70, is ill, and can't continue.

Map to Rudd farm
        But today he will start one final, happy holiday season at the farm when he lights up the hills and sends “Joy to The World” echoing across the hollows.

        His display isn't anything fancy, in the way that modern displays flash with Santas and elves and cartoon characters. His handiwork is heartfelt and ministerial, always running from the day after Thanksgiving to Jan. 1.

        “We'd rather take a beating than close, but when your health goes and you get old, it's time to get out,” Mr. Rudd said. “I'll miss having the display. It's my whole life. I'll miss walking around the hills with the little children and their parents and soaking up the lights. I'll miss seeing the faces on the handicapped folks when they realize they can get up here to see the displays. I'll just miss all the people we see every year.”

        “Oh, it's been hard on him,” his wife added. “He's resigned himself to the fact that this is it. For me, seeing the for-sale sign in front of our house makes everything seem so final. But we knew this day would come because every good thing must end. Myself, what I'll miss most is seeing the teen-agers. They touch my heart. I've

        always felt for them because there's so little for them to look forward to these days. But they come through here and they appreciate it. They are the ones we need to reach.”

        “All this is breaking my heart,” Mr. Rudd said. “I came out of the hills of Kentucky, nothing but a poor boy, and I made my way. All my life, I said that if I ever got the opportunity, I'd tell the world about Christmas. So I kept building up a display until it told the story. When I came out here to Adams County 30 years ago, not one neighbor complained about the lights and the cars. Everything grew. The Lord took an old man with a third-grade education and used him to send the message all over the world. I've walked around this farm with reporters from NBC and ABC and CBS. Even The New York Times.”

        When he started the Blue Creek display, Mr. Rudd had only 3,500 lights. He added to that number every year, and attracted more people. By 1982, about 100,000 people stopped to see the display, and by the late 1990s the number had increased to an estimated 200,000 a year.

        Mr. Rudd has strung lights across the trees and hills in a remote area of a remote county. He bought old Christmas displays from cities and made the holiday the focus of his family's life. He didn't do it out of ego or commercialism. He simply wanted to proclaim his joy.

        Today, he does it with a smile and six huge electric meters with 1,200 amps. “When I first started,” he recalled, “I flipped the switch and burned up the big electric company feeder line. The guy called and said, "Carl, buddy, take it easy. Turn 'em on one set at a time.' We haven't had a power failure in years.”

        Mr. Rudd won't reveal how much it costs to operate the display, but 20 years ago he told a reporter he paid $3,000 a year. “I don't want people thinking I'm asking for money,” he said. “I promised the Lord that my display would always be free.”

        While Mr. Rudd sets up the wise men, Judy bakes cookies and makes candy for thousands of visitors who show up at their front door each year. They came from Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati — all over the state. Even from other states and countries.

        It's difficult to explain why they come, or the farm's rustic appeal. The Rudds' faded red farmhouse is a simple place that sits between two large hills. During the day, puffs of smoke appear to rise from the distant Appalachian hillsides, but then you realize the gray is nothing more than bare branches set against brown earth.

        On narrow Cassel Run Road, visitors are greeted by hand-lettered signs and old barns and animals. When the wind blows, chimes ring throughout and everything gently shakes — big candy canes, wise men, carolers, 6-foot angels, wreaths and man gers. The road is so rural, so lonely, that the only sound is the howling wind and a white and tan cat crying for its dinner.

        Across from the house, a large, surrealistic angel made of gold tinsel holds a trumpet to its face — a slightly-too-small doll's head. Concrete steps lead up the steep hillside to reveal biblical scenes and messages. Family gospel music echoes into nowhere.

        The whole farm is that way — unusual, rough-hewn, incongruent.

        “I can walk through the hills and hear people talking,” Mr. Rudd said. “The children say, "Mom, what does this scene say?' I love that. I remember one time when we had a busload of blind people here. They got to talking, and it really got to me. I wondered how they could appreciate the place. But they said they "see' by hearing the people talking through the hills.”

        Though the Rudds reared 10 children in 37 years of marriage, their main accomplishment has been bringing good cheer. Their farm has become so popular that the Blue Creek Post Office (in a mobile home) is offering a special cancellation that reads, “Rudd's Christmas Farm,” with a picture of the Rudd house and two angels.

        “The farm has sent Blue Creek's name throughout the world,” Postmaster Vira Wylie said. “The amazing thing is that the Rudds have taken on the burden by themselves. The thing is free, and that says a lot in this time.”

        When visitors stop at the farm, they hear about seasonal joy, not world troubles or even the Rudds' personal struggles.

        “Oh, we've had it rough at times,” Mr. Rudd said. “Judy has had 25 surgeries. I've had 14. But we were just thankful to show people love. I always said, "Lord, please don't let me get that Alzheimer's.' But for some reason he has seen fit for me to get the disease. I know he has a plan, though. The medicine has helped me. And I'm all right when I get to thinking about how wonderful it is to know my sweet Jesus.”

        This year will be difficult for regular visitors, too. They'll see a for-sale sign next to the farmhouse. The place will be sold outright, with most of the Christmas displays left standing in the fields and the hills. The couple plan to move to Winchester.

        In the backs of their minds, though, they hold a slim hope that somebody will buy the farm and continue to operate it as a Christmas attraction and tradition. As far-fetched as it seems, the idea is not impossible when you consider what the Rudds have overcome in their lives.

        “You never know what the Lord has in store,” Mr. Rudd said. “He has a plan for us all.”

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