COOS BAY, Ore. -- It’s safe to say that most holiday lights don’t hold a candle to the ones the Friends of Shore Acres State Park put up each year.
Folks start showing up as early as October to light up the only botanical garden to achieve state park status in Oregon.
If you’re quick enough to keep up with the woman who started it all, Shirley Bridgham can tell you how it all began – more than two decades ago.
“We started with 6,000 lights – just 6,000 lights and one Christmas tree. And then we doubled that each year until we got up to 150,000 lights,” said Bridgham. With a chuckle, she added, “Then we started going up by fifty thousand lights at a time.”
Back in those days, Shirley and her husband David Bridgham enlisted a dozen or so of their friends to help out. But now, with more than five miles of electric cord and 275,000 lights, the job requires organization and direction.
Shirley’s figured that out too – with a three-ring notebook that is crammed with pages and maps and photos of the park.
“Well, this book shows me what we start with: that is, all the kinds and styles of lights to use and then every single shrub gets a tag. The text that I’ve developed tells me how many lights, what color to use on the bush and so forth.”
She’s not kidding – every shrub, bush and many of the trees get a tag and eventually one or more string of lights.
Shirley boasts that one time she logged more than eight miles of walking across Shore Acres sprawling seven acre garden – directing, advising and motivating her volunteer troops.
Like holiday elves, fifteen hundred volunteers now follow the Bridgham’s lead –while a small, dedicated group of twenty-five or so will spend all of their free time on weekends, putting up the park lights and displays in time for opening night on Thanksgiving Day.
They will stretch 3400 strings of lights and it is hard, painstaking work to get them to look and to work just right. Many say it is also the sort of work that makes them feel good and puts a smile on their face.
David Barnhart (he travels all the way from Seaside on the northern Oregon coast each weekend,) said: “I just enjoy the people and the camaraderie. There’s quite a group of people out here; usually the same ones every year and it’s a lot of work so we couldn’t get the job done without them.”
Del Willis said that he lives in an apartment in Coos Bay and so putting up the holiday lights in the park is something that he looks forward to each year: “This is for the community, a great thing for Oregon and for the world. Let’s face it - it just makes you feel good to do this for others to enjoy.”
Preson Philips, park manager in charge of Shore Acres State Park, agreed that people feel good lending a hand to get the park ready. In fact, he said that all the work, all of the expenses – even the electric bill – are all paid by the “Friends of Shore Acres:”
“I don’t know if I can explain it,” noted Phillips. “ I believe there is something about this site, this garden, this community where pure volunteerism from the community comes out each weekend to make this happen – maybe it’s just pride in the park.”
“Pride” resonates across the seven acre park, despite uncertain times, tough economic times in a county with one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, note David Bridgham.
He said that the worst of times seems to bring out the best in people who want to brighten their park, support their community and show visitors that they care about the place they call home.
Bridgham believes that by giving so much of their time and energy to make the “Holiday Lights” come to life each year, local folks get even more back in return.
“This event is a touchstone! This place is where the community comes together and it’s a tradition. People know it’s going to be here every year and they can be a part of it.”
Shirley Bridgham agreed and added “It’s magic – for 36 nights each year – it is magic come true. Especially if you are here are the sun drops out of sight across the ocean out there – the magic that begins at dusk is amazing.”
David added, “What thrills me is that there are so many adults who don’t know the Christmas or the holidays without coming out here to see the Holiday Lights and that’s s touching, even rewarding. It puts me in the Christmas spirit.”
The Holiday Lights – a magical gift for you from the good friends of Coos County who keep the lights burning in a special place by the sea called Shore Acres.
The Holiday Lights continue through New Year’s Eve, the park is open daily and closes each night at 10pm. There is no entry fee, but there is a three-dollar state park parking permit required.