winter wonderlandBy NIKKI ROWELL,
Alvis family legacy continues through the christmas village displayed in Madison
The holiday season brings with it daydreams of winter wonderlands and a white Christmas.
However, in Mississippi where snow is rare, a family of Northsiders decided to build a little winter wonderland of their own. And now the public can enjoy it on Main Street in Madison in front of the Caboose. But this is not where the story ends. The magical display started on a street off West Capitol.
Lester Alvis, 92, grew up on Pecan Boulevard in Jackson where his father built a miniature Christmas village to display throughout the holiday season on their front lawn.
Alvis and his father took up woodworking as a hobby. Over the years, Alvis made many wooden ornaments and bowls and other items.
The Christmas village tradition began in 1950 when they made a church, a couple of houses and other buildings to be displayed on the lawn at their family home on Pecan Boulevard.
The village was later donated to the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village, where it was displayed until 1964.
In ’64, vandals broke into the storage unit it was housed in and broke it apart with axes.
The only piece they were able to salvage was a horse-drawn sleigh.
“That’s where the idea for this village came from,” Bill said of the collection of buildings that he began to make in 1970.
Alvis’ son Les remembered the Christmas village his grandparents had and talked his father into building one of their own around 1970.
“He kept asking me every year to start one,” Alvis said. “He just kept asking me and asking me, and finally I gave in.”
They started the village with the church, which serves as the focal point of the display, and one house. Those two buildings were the only pieces to the village the Christmas of ’73.
Each year, the village grew as they completed new pieces.
The village was a family tradition, not just at Christmas time, but year-round.
They would all talk about what they wanted to build each year and brainstorm ideas for how the village should grow.
This was a family project. His wife, Minnie, would decorate the interior.
Alvis said that when the outside of the buildings was complete, she would take over and decorate the inside.
“She decided what would go in each room,” Alvis said. Some of the pieces inside the buildings were handmade from wood and some they purchased.
When they were working on the blacksmith shop, the couple went to the fair one night where they saw a claw machine game.
In the machine was an anvil and a hammer.
“I said that would be great for the Christmas village,” Alvis said. “We approached one of the workers and asked if they would sell it. He said come back in an hour. We came back in an hour, and I will never forget, he said, ‘There goes another winner.’ He handed us that stuff and I gave him a dollar.”
“Mom would describe to him what would be good, and he would make it,” said Bill, Alvis’ youngest son.
“We all looked forward to putting it up, to displaying it,” Alvis said.
Putting it up every year had to be done in stages.
It was stored in the attic. The church was stored in a shed in the back yard because it was too large for the attic.
“Getting it all down and into the carport was a day’s work,” Bill said. “The process of setting it up in the yard would take about a day if the weather was nice.”
Alvis’ next-door neighbor on Berkley, William Addkison, was an architect.
“He drew up all the plans for the buildings,” Alvis said. “That’s why they’re all built perfectly to scale. He was involved from the very beginning, because he drew our plans up for the church. We started out to make the church broad-sided. I never said anything to Mr. Addkison about it, but he saw I was working on something. He walked over, and I told him what it was.”
Addkison came over on a Saturday, and on Sunday, after the Alvis family got home from church, they found detailed blueprints for the church rolled up inside.
“From that point on, he and I would get together every year and decide what to build and he would draw the plans up for me,” Alvis said.
Each building would take about two to three weeks to make since Alvis did not have a shop and worked in his carport.
When his father died, he left his tools to Alvis. So, he added on to their home so that he could have a shop. He was able to get the buildings done faster after that.
The village now has over 20 pieces, including a black smith shop, fire department, general store, bank, school, infirmary, town hall and a few houses, all arranged around the church, which serves as the focal point of the display.
Frances Harrison made the people walking down the street and sitting in the church pews.
She also made the people that were part of Alvis’ parents’ Christmas village.
“After that, we continued to add to the village,” Alvis said. “We thought the village should grow. And we had music with it and we were very particular about that music. It was a choir singing Christmas church songs.”
The family would start the process of making a new piece in August.
“We had a lot of collaboration on the building, talking back and forth,” he said. “Sometimes I would be underway, and Mr. Addkison would come over and say you have to change this. He kept my toes to the fire and kept me to scale to make it authentic like it ought to be.”
Alvis said it was basically a neighborhood project.
The last building, he made was in 1991, which was the infirmary.
The village was displayed in his yard from 1973 to 1998 on Berkley Drive. Then it was loaned to the Mississippi Agriculture Museum, where it was displayed for 10 years.
Now, the city of Madison is displaying it for the 10th year this Christmas.
“Somewhere during the time, it has been displayed in Madison, my nephew Jim Alvis began to help put it out each year,” Alvis said. “Also, I remember in Madison there was one of the employees Charlie, he helped us put it out. Jim repairs buildings as needed and is instrumental in getting the display set up and looking good. He is a big help. Bill also helps.”
Alvis has a wealth of stories connected to the village. His eyes light up the most when he recalls the family aspect of it and how much fun they had putting it all together.
“Another unique thing about the village, at one point we had the grist mill and a pond,” Alvis said. “Children would throw coins in the pond. It turned out to be a lot of coins.”
They ended up with about $300 to $400 worth of coins each year.
“We would get together and decide what we were going to do with that money, some charity,” he said. “We would get it out at night and roll it up and save it. Each year, we would give it to a charity of some sort.”
The grist mill was built in 1980.
Alvis said their road would turn into a traffic jam every year as people drove bumper to bumper to see the village in their yard.
“But no one ever complained,” Alvis said.
People who visited the village as children when it first got started in the ‘70s have told the family of bringing their own children to come see it.
Alvis said they have a folder filled with letters and cards that people have sent with compliments and thanks for the display.
“We’ve always enjoyed having people out,” Alvis said.
This year makes 46 years that the village has been on display.