Little U.P. town has big holiday lights display

COPPER HARBOR – For more than 100 years, Copper Harbor’s lighthouse has guided for nautical travelers. For the last seven, the little town at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula has hosted what is probably the area’s largest Christmas light display that has served as a beacon to winter travelers.

According to Don Kilpela Jr., who came up with the idea for the light display and has spearheaded the project, this year’s was the most difficult he’s put up, due to stormy weather in the weeks leading up to the Dec. 14 lighting ceremony.

“Never before have I been through weather like this,” Kilpela said.

Eventually, though, about 50,000 of the approximately 70,000 lights available went up, despite high winds, heavy snow and frigid temperatures.

Still, the end result is spectacular, Copper Harbor resident Barb Foley said.

“He just outdid himself,” she said. “They’re just beautiful.”

With getting as many lights up as possible and replacing $150 worth of extension cords at the last minute, Kilpela didn’t have the chance to install the 20-odd timers it takes to run the show in time for the lighting ceremony. Instead of putting in another big chunk of time to do so, he quickly fell into the habit of driving the few blocks down Gratiot Street to turn on the lights about 5:30 p.m. each evening and returning between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. to turn them off each night.

“There’s something about coming over here and turning them on,” he said, shaking his head. “If they were on timers I wouldn’t see them every day.”

Of course, that also gives him the chance to keep up with maintenance of the display.

Despite the brutal weather, the lighting ceremony was a success, Kilpela said. The ceremony was held in conjunction with Winter Wonderfest, a craft sale and massive community bake sale that raised nearly $1,900 for the Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Department toy drive, which he said gives Christmas presents to more than 100 families annually.

“I’m not saying it’s the end all and be all of Christmas lights in America,” Kilpela said. “But for this end of the road it’s a nice light display. I’d like the rest of the Copper Country to come out and see it.”

Foley owns one of the few businesses open throughout the winter in Copper Harbor, the Old Country Store gift shop. She said the lighting ceremony got a pretty good turnout this year, with a mix of day trippers and visitors from farther away.

She said it seems in the winter that Copper Harbor gets more guests from out of state than from just down the road.

“I’d like to see people from Calumet, Houghton and Hancock,” she said. “They think it’s too far, but we see people from all over the world.”

Keweenaw County and some private donors have helped fund the display, Kilpela said. It costs about $1,000 a year just to replace light strings and other equipment damaged by weather and handling, he said, and he’s currently trying to incrementally upgrade to LED bulbs.

Friends and neighbors have also helped out by giving their time, and Dave Sladek donated a bucket truck to help volunteers trim the very highest boughs, but again, the weather didn’t cooperate.

“We had the truck for three weeks and could only use it three days,” Kilpela laughed.

Kilpela said he learns something new every year working on the Christmas display.

One of his favorites: A trick passed down by a friend of a friend on a Monday Night Football crew.

“After seven years, I’ve finally learned to untangle lines of lights,” Kilpela said. “You just have to shake them loose.

The Copper Harbor Christmas light display will be lit until New Year’s Day, with Kilpela starting to pull strings of lights down shortly afterward – weather permitting – and pull out the final elements in the spring when the snow melts.