Display brings folks to Pierz from near and far, all wondering what will be next
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
A Christmas tradition in Pierz had humble beginnings with a star in the east (of Pierz) and a friendly competition.
In the late 1990s (they can’t remember the exact year), Denny Rothstein put a star atop his home on the northeast edge of city limits on Highway 39.
Giving directions the Pierz way, go east from Hartmann’s.
The next year his neighbor, Don Bujalski, who lives across Highway 39 on Kamnic Lane, put up a star too — only this one was lit and it rotated.
While the competition began when Rothstein’s daughter said, “You’re not going to let him outdo you, are you?” It didn’t take long before the two were collaborating.
That collaboration, with help from volunteers who have joined in over the years, has resulted in one of the largest handmade displays in the area, with the anticipation of something “new” each year.
This year is no different. Since St. Nick Night was started by the Commercial Club seven years ago, the goal is to get the whole display up, including any new items, by the first Wednesday in December.
“Thank goodness there’s a St. Nick Night,” said Bujalski.
Monday, the “big new thing” put out for display was the Red Baron’s airplane, complete with Snoopy, inspired by a song from Royal Guardsman, a ’60s band known for their hit “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
As with several of the displays, the parts came before the idea was born.
The plane was always an idea, said Rothstein. They found it for sale in Browerville. It was damaged, but obviously salvageable and that day, they had Dale Janson, one of their longtime volunteers haul it home.
It sat in Rothstein’s garage for five years before it was finally refurbished. Rey Zimney, a retired teacher in Pierz, who didn’t know he had a gift for painting, brought the Red Baron and Snoopy to life.
After a little trouble with a boom that wasn’t long enough to get it to its perch, thanks to borrowed equipment from Loidolt’s Lumber, the plane is situated on the north side of the display on Rothstein’s property.
The group of men responsible for the 500 hours of labor that go into the display each year, starting with maintenance, includes Rothstein and Bujalski, of course, Zimney, Wally Meierhofer, Arthur Douvier and the rookie of the group, John Pohlkamp. All are retired, except Bujalski.
How they all came to be involved, they can’t really say. Most of the guys just showed up.
“I don’t remember if it was a bad day or what,” Meierhofer joked.
“If Denny and Don were willing to do it for the area, why not help?” said Janson.
Many came together over coffee in the morning, either at the cafe in Genola in the beginning, or at Red’s.
“Coffee at Red’s,” said Bujalski, “You gotta blame Red.”
Official work begins in October with maintenance of the wooden pieces — but the thought process never ends and new ideas come up throughout the year.
Rothstein said when he takes a moment to reflect on it, he’s amazed sometimes.
“Amazed at what we have come up with, as people who don’t have the particular skills necessary to do these things,” he said. “It’s not in our backgrounds, other than Don, who has been working with wood; but it’s certainly not in my background. For the most part, on a lot of it, we have Wally to thank.”
That’s because when an idea is brought forth, Meierhofer always says, “We can do that,’” said Rothstein. “I can ask him, ‘Have you ever done that?’ and he says, ‘No, but we can do that,’ and we go ahead do it.”
Rothstein figures each year the group puts in about 500 hours of labor, starting with maintenance, crafting new items, putting up the displays, stringing tens of thousands of lights, attached with at least 1 1/2 miles of extension cord.
In the early years, Rothstein and Bujalski crafted decorations out of hay bales. That is until Bujalski, as a Pierz volunteer firefighter, got the call one night that hay bales were on fire and realized they were in his yard.
Now the group waits until after Halloween to begin putting out the majority of the displays.
The secrecy surrounding whatever the “new big thing” each year, has only to do with their desire not to disappoint.
Rothstein said telling people what the new item is and then not being able to deliver is what helps them keep the secret.
As for the electric bill, well, Rothstein said his wife is very understanding, and he doesn’t know what it actually is when the lights go on.
“If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to know the answer.
Why the group continues to put the work into the display isn’t a matter of pride. It’s the joy in seeing the smiles on the faces of visitors.
So too, Bujalski said, “The first year we started screwing around with it, there were enough people uptown who never talked positive about anything. We started doing this and when we were doing our bales of hay during the day, after work and on the weekend, people started saying, ‘What the heck are you doing now?’ And we kept building our turkey and Mr. and Mrs. Claus. It shifted people from saying something negative or derogatory about someone else to, ‘What are those two clowns doing now?’”
Bujalski said people start asking them about what they will do next in the middle of the summer.
“The funny thing is,” said Bujalski, “We can have something out there for five years and we move it to another spot and people think it’s new again.”
Although the bigger-than-life nativity is very special — the one part of the display that was professionally done by an artist and includes a 10-foot camel named “Clyde” — Rothstein’s favorite piece is the starburst.
“I can’t say it’s my favorite because it frustrates me so much,” he said. “It is probably the one that was our most unbelievable creations — and the most challenging. Some smaller pieces have special meaning to me because they are unique.”
The idea for the 14-foot starburst came from a 3-inch Christmas ornament.
Meierhofer’s favorite, he said, “Has always been one of the very simplest ones and one of the first, ‘Peace on Earth’ sitting back there.”
The nativity is Janson’s favorite, “The depth of that.” He added the firemen display was his second favorite.
Bujalski’s favorite is the area by the Pierz baseball diamonds, with snowflakes twinkling on the fence, the sleigh and the fire department display.
“I think next year it’s going to change,” he said. “I’m thinking we should build another storefront and put it there.”
And that’s how it goes, as one year is completed, the ideas come for next year.
“It never stops; we are never done,” said Rothstein. “We may have to quit for the year, but we are never done.”