Karen Marsh says she's not a quitter...but she also knows her limits.
The 59-year-old retired school teacher has become known for her brightly lit, extravagant Christmas scenes that adorn the outside of her parents' farm at W11436 County Road FF.
To view the spectacle, motorists and their passengers are encouraged to enter in the front, follow the circular driveway to the back and then exit on the other side.
In Christmas season 2008, nearly 1,000 drivers did just that. That was then.
Last year on Dec. 9, a blizzard pounded River Falls, bringing a foot of snow and plunging temperatures. The storm buried much of Marsh's outdoor exhibit, scattering some ornaments and figures, and disrupting lights.
Marsh barely recovered to fix and make repairs. She wanted her winter scenes to be perfect and not look cobbled together.
She got the job done, the show went on, but then came freezing rain and ice on Christmas.
The sleet affected her vast, sprawling network of lights and electric chords.
Marsh had to pull the plug for her display on Christmas night -- regrettably, since that's the busiest time for driving spectators to pass through.
Then -- almost one year later to the day -- on Friday night, Dec. 10, 2010, Marsh had 80% of the decorations and lights ready to go for the new season.
She still substitute teaches in Hudson, so her Christmas display work often goes on well into the night.
"I was out working in the yard that Friday," Marsh said. "It was a beautiful night. Not too cold. Everything looked magical. It was coming along. I figured I'd be all done in a week.
"About 15 cars even pulled in for a quick look. People rolled down their windows as they passed, said they'd be back for sure when everything was ready. Before I came into the house a few flakes had started falling."
And those snowflakes, propelled by ferocious wind gusts, didn't let up for 24 hours.
By then River Falls had been belted by another blizzard -- this one more potent and with more snowy accumulations than a year ago.
In the following days Marsh took stock of the mass destruction: Inflatable, colorful figures shredded, deflated or blown away; electric chords severed by plowing or encased in thick, icy snow packs; strings of lights broken; towering snow drifts burying many props.
Marsh soon realized the scale of the damage. She decided on the unimaginable.
"I'm afraid the display is canceled for this Christmas. It would take me at least a month to dig out and fix everything," she said. "I feel so bad about making this decision, I could cry. It's like I've let people down, especially those who come from a distance, like from Elmwood, Hudson and Prescott. I've had a headache for two days and haven't been sleeping well.
"This is my passion. Each year I try to add more new things to make it better. I pick up stuff at garage sales -- stuffed animals, sleds, ice skates, hockey sticks -- in the summer. This is not something you just throw together.
"I do another big display for Halloween, take that one down, and then I'm busying preparing for the Christmas one."
For Marsh, the decision to cancel is even harder because it comes just after the death of her ailing father just after Thanksgiving.
Marsh and her family were then handling funeral arrangements for Roman Pechacek, 88.
Marsh said it was her father's rather modest outdoor Christmas displays on the farm that inspired her to continue over the years and expand the tradition.
Various highlights to the annual Christmas exhibit at the Pechacek farm are:
- Eleven buildings, including Santa's Workshop, are decorated and lit, some on the inside.
- Lighting is linked with a patchwork of 20 outdoor outlets and 39 electrical cords. Part of the house still relies on fuse boxes, so care must be taken that the array of lights doesn't overload the system. Marsh maintains 15 pages of color-coded rough sketches that diagram where all the electrical connections go.
- Nine real evergreen trees are brought in each year, adorned with white lights and placed around the property.
- 15 artificial trees of various sizes are also decorated and set up.
- There are 15 display scenes, like Snow Mountain, North Pole playground and Montego Bay, Jamaica (where Santa heads on Dec. 26).
- 24 inflatable figures of all sizes, including snowmen, penguins, reindeer, polar bears and John Deere tractors.
- Each year Marsh spends almost $500 on new lights, which she usually buys in bulk from Fleet Farm.
"The weather rules," Marsh admitted last week. "This is my first cancelation. If the storm could only have come a month later, after the first of the year, I wouldn't mind if the display was wrecked then. This is all meant for Christmas."
Marsh's mother, Delores Pechacek, declared what happened was "an act of God."
"She beat Old Man Winter last year, but not this year," Delores said about her daughter's battle to save the display. "This Christmas we're going to head out, get some soup, hot chocolate and go enjoy other people's outdoor lights for a change."
Marsh said once Christmas is over, she'll be OK. A trip to the Dominican Republic next month for a nephew's wedding should help her recuperate.
And yes, Marsh insists she'll return with a stunning Christmas display on the Pechacek Farm for 2011.
However, her insistence comes with this proviso: "Weather permitting."