EATON — While Whispering Christmas at Eaton’s Fort St. Clair always shines bright through the holiday season, this year those lights are a little dimmer. Whispering Christmas founder Morris Fudge died this past October.
Fudge began the light festival in 1987 with lights only at Santa’s Cabin, and he left Whispering Christmas as his Christmas legacy with over two million lights and an entire committee behind the family favorite attraction.
According to his wife, Elaine Fudge, Whispering Christmas and the Fort it is located in was Morris Fudge’s life and joy – along with his little dog.
“Remember how in ‘The Grinch’ his heart grew three times its original size? [Morris’] heart was huge at Christmas and that Fort meant the world to him. That Fort was his life, was our lives, for three full months a year,” Elaine Fudge said. “Different people would close on the weekend, but he couldn’t let them be there. We were there every weekend. We were there to open and close.
“He was just an overall wonderful human being. Christmas was his time of year. It was him and Greg Shiverdecker who really started Whispering Christmas. They got this started three years before I went with Morris, as he was my second husband. They were just at the Fort one day and looked down the hill thinking that it would be neat to decorate the cabin with Christmas lights.”
When the two men began the light festival, the lights were only around Santa’s Cabin. Then, it graduated to offering hot cocoa to those driving through. Cars would drive up to the cabin, look at the lights, and get a cup of cocoa and a cookie. As more people became interested, Morris added more to be seen.
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.
As more was added, electricity for Fort St. Clair became necessary. They were putting old milk jugs with candles in them to light the road. According to Elaine Fudge, this got tiring as they had to be lit by hand and blown out in person every single night.
“He was the one who was responsible for getting the electric put in the Fort. He knew we had to do something else,” she said. “They had to go through the State to dig out there, because it was a Fort, but they got their approvals, buried all their electric, and that is when the electric came to be. They even upgraded it a few years later.
“After the electric was added, Whispering Christmas grew immensely, because then you could plug in. It started out with the 800 lights that used to be on the old covered bridge. The fireman used to do that and somehow they got away from it, so all the lights that were used there got taken to the Fort and used from there.
“At that point, we put in the paper for volunteers. We had many volunteers that first year, but it was a lot of work. We developed our Whispering Christmas committee and we had quite a few members. It was the Christmas die-hards who had a heart just like Morris. Every bulb had to be just so.”
Now, and for several years now, Whispering Christmas has been run by Dean Wigger (who also moonlights as Santa Claus). Morris Fudge passed his mantle down to Wigger, but everybody has to start somewhere and Wigger began by not knowing the proper way — the Fudge way — to decorate a tree.
Elaine Fudge recalled, “When he decorated his first tree Dean was proud of it and he said, ‘This is my first tree.’ Morris replied, ‘It looks like it.’ Morris was just that particular with his lights. Everything had to then be sectionalized — like the religious, 12 Days of Christmas, Toy Land, and so on.”
When the festival first began, Fudge did not act as Santa, but as the years went on he was gifted his first Santa suit.
“He wanted to be Santa for the kids. Another thing he would do is that we had the horse and carriage rides. Then, it got so busy that we had to stop those. People would stand in line for those. The rides would only go through the Fort. When people started getting backed up on the roads we knew we had to stop,” Elaine Fudge explained.
“Morris did Santa for years and then another person came along in the committee and they split the time, which was a Godsend. By playing Mrs. Claus, the stories I heard varied from funny to sad. The saddest story I ever heard was, well, Morris hated kids to sit on his lap and scream, but he dealt with it. This mother came to me and her baby was about 18 months and she had tears in her eyes and said, ‘I know she is going to cry, but can I still put her on Santa’s lap? Will he at least hold her so we can get a couple pictures? She only has two months to live.’
“So I had to lean down to Santa Claus and tell him. He held her, the baby cried, but the family got a picture of their baby with Santa Claus.
”There was also a time when these kids told him they only wanted a Christmas tree. Morris found out who the family was and the committee bought a tree and brought it to them. They made sure that they had a good Christmas.”
After Bobby Ball passed away, the Fudge’s played Santa and Mrs. Claus downtown for a few years. According to Elaine Fudge, as the years went by more and more of their lives became dedicated to Whispering Christmas, to the point where they would even hold their Christmas Eve suppers at Santa’s Cabin so they could prepare for the influx of parents and children passing through.
Elaine and Morris Fudge would also spend many dinners at Santa’s Cabin preparing for Whispering Christmas. Their lives for many years were centered around the light show. She said Morris loved being involved with Whispering Christmas and playing Santa so much, because he felt like he could give children their wishes.
“They could look at him and he could say that he would try. A lot of the times the parents wouldn’t know what they want, so the parents would listen in,” Elaine Fudge said. “Morris was one of a kind. I know that Dean [Wigger] plays Santa now and there are other Santas. It was a hard thing for Morris to want to give up, but we were getting older. It took a toll on us.”
They even hid in the woods one year to try and catch vandals who were doing damage to the lights. They never caught them, but the couple thought they figured out who the culprits were.
After 25 years, Morris Fudge passed Whispering Christmas onto Wigger. Elaine Fudge said his age and health made it necessary for him to pass his legacy onto another, and Wigger has gone above and beyond expanding Whispering Christmas.
The Fudges continued to visit Whispering Christmas and were happy with the direction that Wigger took it.
Now that he has passed on, Morris Fudge is memorialized inside the Memory Cabin at Fort St. Clair.
“That is what he would want. He would be very proud. I’m proud,” Elaine Fudge said. “He left a wonderful Christmas legacy for people now and in the future to enjoy. It just started with 800 lights. He is very proud.”
This fall, Preble County said goodbye to their original and true Santa Claus, but his legacy lives on and continues to grow, year by year, every time the snow starts to fall and those Christmas lights are turned on in Fort St. Clair.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH