EATON — This year, Whispering Christmas at Eaton’s Fort St. Clair celebrates its 30th year. The community favorite holiday light festival was started in 1987 with two founders and 800 lights.
It now features over two million.
Whispering Christmas operates from Nov. 25-Dec. 31 and is a lighting display with no admission fee. It opens in late November for “drive-thru” only, meaning cars can drive through Fort St. Clair and see the lights, but Santa’s Cabin is not yet open for visitors.
The event officially opens on Dec. 1, with refreshments served for donations. Hot cocoa and McDonald’s orange drink and cookies from local groups, churches, and businesses are served by volunteers. Commemorative mugs are available for purchase for $5.
Santa Claus visits the Fort every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday December 1-23. He visits the Fort the entire week leading up to Christmas Eve.
There is no admission fee, but donations are requested to aid in keeping the light display running.
In the beginning of Whispering Christmas, the lights were around only Santa’s Cabin. On the second day of the festival, it was decided that hot cocoa would be served. Cars would drive up to the cabin, look at the lights, and get a cup of cocoa and a cookie. The founders wanted others to enjoy Christmas as much as they did, so they brought Whispering Christmas to make Fort St. Clair special for the season.
Santa did not come to the cabin until the following year.
At that time, Whispering Christmas was not a display — it was just lights lining the cabin, but over the years, the festival grew into what it is today.
Today, Whispering Christmas uses over two million lights in its displays. Each year the Whispering Christmas committee strives to make the festival “bigger and better” than the year before.
There are three Whispering Christmas committee co-chairs responsible for the planning of the festival: Dean Wigger, Connie Sturgill, and Cathy Marion. The committee includes 15 people, but is looking for more volunteers.
Wigger has been a part of Whispering Christmas for the last 22 years. He took it over 14 years ago. In 2012, he reached out due to medical issues and brought in his co-chairs. Marion has been a part of Whispering Christmas since 1988.
Whispering Christmas has become a tradition for the community.
“I think it is something people look forward to every year,” Wigger said.
“We’ve had people stop in and say, ‘We were here 20, 25, 30 years ago and can’t believe what it’s done.’”
C0-chair Sturgill added, “I’ve heard from several families with children or relatives out of town, they come in for Christmas and that’s one of the things they do. They come for the lights.”
The event has changed a lot over the years. Not only has it grown exponentially, but over the years the Fort has seen many different activities during the season which did not last, for one reason or another. There were crafts sold from local organizations and vendors, one year saw live reindeer — and there were even carriage rides.
The carriage rides are a tradition the committee would love to return to, but there is not a safe path with the traffic the Fort sees during the light festival.
In the past, the cabin has gone through 85-100 cookies a night, but now they serve over 250 dozen cookies on any given Friday or Saturday. That’s 3,000 cookies a night.
Weeknights require 125 dozen cookies.
All the lights are now 100 percent LED, which cut down on the electric bill significantly. Before the switch, the electricity was costing roughly $4,000 a month, and now it’s costing that for the entire season.
Because of this cost-saving switch, the committee has been able to add even more lights.
There were several new displays this year, including a tornado display, The Emerald City, kaleidoscope lights, and a new reindeer.
“This year there are the most wrapped trees I’ve ever seen,” Wigger said.
In the last two years, the committee has also brought in local robotics team, Robotics-R-Us. The group set up music to coincide with the lights, making it a more cohesive experience.
The committee wanted to make the anniversary of Whispering Christmas special. Not only did they bring in all the new displays, but they moved Toy Land back to where it used to be. They had moved it originally due to disrepair, but the committee fixed the displays, made them shiny and new, and put them back where they always had been.
The committee meets regularly with the City of Eaton to go over long term plans for the festival.
“I can’t thank the city enough for what they’ve done for us,” Wigger added.
Whispering Christmas has always been, and will continue to be, 100 percent donation-driven and volunteer-operated.
This is the first year businesses have begun to sponsor the event, but the committee can see more of of this type of participation in the future. As of now, most of the money for the event is gathered through the donation barrels set up in the Fort.
The donations help maintain the park, as well as maintain Whispering Christmas. It helps fix buildings and patches in the road.
While donations are requested, they are not required. Whispering Christmas is a free event for everyone.
Wigger explained, “We feel that the person who can put in a penny, is worth just as much to us as the person who can put in $100.
“You see people that come through here, and you know that is the only food or drink that they’ve had for that day.”
The committee wants everyone to be able to see Whispering Christmas.
Whispering Christmas is not just for the community to enjoy. People come from all around the area to see the lights.
One group present on Wednesday, Dec. 21, came front Richmond, Indiana. One attendee was 85 and the other 81. It was their first year visiting the lights. One of their group mates had been there before, but not in 19 years. They thought the display was “beautiful.”
Another group came from Brookville and Englewood. It was their first year at Whispering Christmas as well. Attendee Mark Garlitz said, “We saw it on the internet and decided to come down.”
He added, he thought the lights were “fantastic” and that he and his family would be visiting again next year “for sure.”
Co-chair Wigger predicted, “I think it brings a lot to the community. I think it brings a lot to our town. I think it brings everybody in the downtown area an additional amount of business to them. They count on that now, where 20 years ago they never gave it much of a thought.”
The event is run by volunteers. Everything from decorations, to serving refreshments, to deconstruction of lights is done by volunteers. As always, the committee is looking for more volunteers. Not only to serve on serving duty next year, but to help take down lights this year. There are many ways people can help out with Whispering Christmas.
The committee checks the grounds to make sure everything is safe for the public. They plan for Whispering Christmas all year round. They even separate the park into sections to make decorating easier. Volunteers can choose to decorate a certain part of the park. Each year the group has to repair many of the displays and get them in good shape for the next year.
Last year, a woman donated candy canes which went on after-Christmas sale. Santa hands every kid a candy cane, and normally they go through 5,000, but this year they might go through 7,000, according to Wigger.
Any manner in which volunteers can help is appreciated, whether it be volunteering to decorate, volunteering for the committee, or donating whatever Christmas item one can. Whispering Christmas relies on the community to stay in business.
Wigger added, “We are looking for some energetic young groups who are looking to take it to the next level.”
Any questions or volunteer inquiries can be brought to co-chair Sturgill at 937-533-5943, through email at email@example.com, or on the Fort St. Clair Whispering Christmas Facebook page.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH.