BLUFFTON — The power lines beginning to stretch across rural northwestern Ohio in 1937 would soon bring, in the words of The Lima News, “current surging into dwellings and farm buildings long darkened because of their inaccessibility and distance from established power supply centers.”
The power lines, the newspaper declared, “will provide non-equipped farm dwellings with modern electrical facilities. Radios, modern home lights, improved washing machines and mechanical labor-saving devices now are within range of farmers and at a price customers can afford.”
In 1938, when the current surged to the home of Harry and Dorothy Ream east of Bluffton near Jenera in Hancock County, Dorothy imagined another use for it — Christmas.
“’Why not build a little Christmas display? With lights!’” Dorothy asked, according to a November 1986 story in the Bluffton News.
Dorothy, a teacher, had seen a cutout pattern for a deer family — buck, doe and fawn — in one of her school magazines, which she showed to her husband, a farmer and skilled woodworker. “The order was sent the next day,” the newspaper wrote. “He bought some plywood, she traced the pattern of the deer on it. He carefully cut it out, she painted. Three strings of lights containing seven bulbs each were purchased to highlight the deer.
“That Christmas, three white deer were placed on the Ream’s lawn for all to see,” the Bluffton News noted. “It was the beginning of a tradition for the Ream family. For the next 45 years, Dorothy, Harry, their children and grandchildren drew, cut, painted and lighted an additional art piece for the lawn.” The Reams had three children, Elaine, Eloise “Ellie,” and Richard.
In 1985, Harry donated that “little Christmas display,” which had grown to 168 pieces during its nearly five decades gracing the Reams’s lawn, to the village of Bluffton, where it became the seed for and the centerpiece of Bluffton’s annual village-wide Blaze of Lights celebration. The cutouts have been maintained and added to over the years by Bluffton artist Terry Mullenhour.
The 34th edition of the Blaze of Lights, though the pandemic forced the modification of events like the parade and reciting of the Christmas story, began Nov. 28 with the illumination of what has become known as the Ream folk art collection at the Bluffton Presbyterian Church, 112 N. Main St. Since then, holiday music and decorations have been enjoyed throughout downtown Bluffton. In addition to the Ream display, lighted garlands and snowflakes line the main business district as downtown businesses compete in a decorating contest. The celebration will continue through Jan. 1.
Writing for an English class at Ohio Northern during 1961-1962, Dorothy recalled the process of making the cutouts. “Colors that were not available were obtained by mixing various colors until the desired shade was blended,” she wrote in the essay published in the Bluffton News in November 1997. “I sketched the patterns on large sheets of paper first, then transferred them to plywood. My husband did the sawing and sanding, while I did the painting later.”
In ensuing years, the three deer were joined by a angels, ice skaters, a star on the barn, a manger scene beneath a lean-to roof, carolers, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit from “A Christmas Carol,” a horse drawn-sleigh salvaged from a barn pulled by a cutout horse, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and many others. Over the years, more twinkling lights, back lighting, flood lights and even piped-in music were added.
“Our basement looks like Santa’s workshop for several week preceding each Christmas,” Dorothy wrote in her essay. “There are trial and error methods employed, a few arguments, but a lot of fun connected with our hobby; like the time I got the paint too heavy on the little boy caroler’s face and his nose dripped all evening …”
Mostly, though, Dorothy wrote, “there is the rewarding satisfaction when we realize how much people appreciate and enjoy our hobby. … Once our daughter brought a girl friend with her to spend the holidays with us. They decided to count the cars going by. They stopped counting (at) 259 cars in a two-hour period. This traffic continues for three weeks. Some people tell us that they come back four and five times during a season, saying they always see something they haven’t noticed before,” she added.
The day after Christmas in 1972, as the Reams wrapped up the 33rd year of the front-yard display, Harry told The Lima News the display took up about a half-acre of their 108-acre farm. “Mounting the display is a long and hard but rewarding task, according to Ream. The pieces are unpacked weeks in advance of the season and Ream is assisted by his son, Richard, who is also a carpenter and works his parents’ farm,” the News wrote.
In her English essay, Dorothy concluded, “Yes, our hobby has almost reached the point of becoming an obligation, but what better way is there to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ to so many people.”
Dorothy Ream died on April 27, 1984, at the age of 74. Her obituary in The Lima News noted she was a graduate of Bluffton College, had also attended Ohio Northern University and had taught sixth grade and art at Cory-Rawson schools for 26 years. “She and her husband were known throughout the area for the annual Christmas displays on their Orange Township farm.”
The year after his wife’s death, Harry Ream donated the 168 pieces and nearly 7,000 Christmas lights to Bluffton. “This is the first year since 1939 that the display will not be shown in the Ream front yard in rural Jenera,” the Bluffton News wrote in November 1986.
In 1999, Harry Ream was the parade grand marshal and flipped the switch to light up the 13th annual Blaze of Lights. He died Jan. 12, 2003. “For 17 years, the Blaze of Lights has been a community tradition that began with the true spirit of Christmas,” The Lima News wrote. “Harry Ream’s belief of giving rather than receiving led to the creation of the festival that gave so many people so much joy.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.