Vast collection of Byers’ Choice and Department 56 figures are part of a movie-worthy tale in Madison County
By Tom Kerr
“It took over 200 hours to clean and sort everything,” says Pat Franklin, one of the caretakers of the giant Horrell collection of Christmas memorabilia whose sale will benefit a Madison County charity.
Photos by Matt Rose
For the past few weeks, Madison County’s historic Methodist Church at Jewell Hill — which sits on the original site of the county’s first log-cabin courthouse — has undergone a vivid transformation. The circa-1850 building, vacant for many years, is now the temporary home of a vibrant and rather mindboggling congregation of Santa Clauses, with all their ornamental accouterments.
Anyone who recently visited the church was greeted in the foyer by larger-than-life-sized versions of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, bespectacled and decked out in red velvet. The pews are filled with parishioners in the form of dozens of different Santas of various shapes, heights, and vintages. Plastic candy canes, artificial Christmas trees, toy snowmen, busy elves, and teddy bears enhance the effect — there’s even a vacationing Saint Nick holding an old Polaroid Instamatic camera.
Another Kris Kringle incarnation rides in an exquisitely crafted sleigh, pulled by a full team of realistic-looking reindeer. A meticulously detailed Dickens Village is inhabited by Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and the other usual suspects, all wearing bright scarves and stovepipe hats. One rare, pious caroler in pink warbles away at a piano, looking like a cross between Liberace and Madame from Hollywood Squares.
An antique toy train, restored to immaculate condition, clatters past the unbelievable scene.
There are Santas by the dozens, enough Santas to fill a Christmas lover’s dream (or a Grinch’s nightmare). In a significant reversal of roles, their helpers aren’t elves, but an assortment of humans: real-life community volunteers who are hard at work preparing the unique collection of Christmas memorabilia for a public exhibit and sale the first week in December. Proceeds generated by selling the most collectable of the Santas (not even the exhibited Clauses comprise the whole) directly benefit the nonprofit organization Madison Has HEArT. The charity, in partnership with another local nonprofit, Neighbors in Need, raises funds to provide heating assistance to individuals and families in crisis across Madison County. The December sale is a precursor to the nonprofit’s main event in February, to be held at Marshall High Studios. And once the church itself is renovated, it will also be used to host concerts and special occasions, with funds going to Madison Has HEArT.
Pat Franklin, one of the founders of the organization, explains that the overwhelming assortment of Santas and ornaments belonged to a local couple, Ann and Harry Horrell, who were passionate about celebrating the joy of Christmas. The couple’s nostalgic personal collection grew over the decades until it became a totally spectacular, and admittedly slightly spooky, year-round display — showcased in virtually every room of their house. After his wife died, Mr. Horrell purchased the former church at Jewell Hill, with its spacious sanctuary and soaring ceilings, and used it to warehouse all of the accumulated Christmas paraphernalia. Recently he, too, passed away, but his desire was for the valuable collection to live on — giving back to the local community in the true spirit of the holidays. The estate of Harry Horrell generously bequeathed the church and the entire collection of Christmas memorabilia to Rev. and Mrs. Gene Linton. Then, in a move worthy of a holiday movie, the Lintons paid it forward once again, giving it all to Madison Has HEArT.
Franklin says the inspiration behind the nonprofit came from her friend and neighbor Martha Abraham, who moved to Marshall after a successful career as a fashion designer. “She was grateful to the mountain folks for preserving the local heritage and natural beauty of the area,” Franklin says. “They could have just as easily sold out and turned Marshall into another glitzy tourist town like Gatlinburg. She wanted a way to repay the locals for that, and decided to pare down some of her belongings so that they could be sold to raise money to benefit the community.”
Abraham called people she knew in the fashion industry and convinced them that they, too, needed to downsize — and soon the donations started pouring in to the newly launched nonprofit. “They were sending high-end Coach handbags, big-screen televisions, fancy living-room furniture, you name it,” recalls Franklin. The event accrued a name — “The Fanciful Flea.”
“When I saw all of that and how beautifully Martha staged it, I figured we might raise as much as $10,000 that first year,” says Franklin. But word got around, and despite frigid, snowy weather that February day in 2014, the sale attracted people from all over Western North Carolina. To the delight of the event’s organizers, the amount raised was approximately $25,000.
The February sale earlier this year was another grand success. Then, while Madison Has HEArT was planning for this year’s event, Franklin got a phone call. The local Freewill Baptist Church had closed, and the congregation decided to donate $32,000 left in its coffers to Madison Has HEArT. Within 72 hours, she got another call, informing her that the church at Jewell Hill — including its incredible inventory of Christmas decorations — had also been donated to the organization.
“The church’s cemetery has tombstones dating back to the Civil War era,” says Franklin, “and is the resting place of many of Marshall’s earliest settlers. The movers and shakers who founded this area are sleeping all around us at Jewell Hill, and I believe they are looking out for us.”
Nevertheless, getting the vast collection ready for sale has taken many hours of volunteer power. “Everything had to be cleaned gently with a soft makeup brush and water,” says Franklin. “Then batteries and fuses had to be replaced. It took at least 200 hours to clean and sort everything.”
Helpers Elizabeth Gullum and Melanie Kraft did extensive online research to price the individual characters and their accessories (most of them were manufactured by Byers’ Choice or Department 56). “The pieces were made from 1989 to 2003, and all of them are ‘retired,’ which means they are no longer in production,” explains Kraft. “Most are in their original boxes and come with a lighting source.”
Referring to the 150-year-old church, Gullum notes, “the building itself had to be cleaned and emptied and gone through.” When it comes to the Christmas collection, she details a meticulous process, revealing, by extension, the high level of care Madison Has HEArT brings to its larger mission: “We had a triage section for all of the loose and extra pieces we encountered,” she says. “We glued and fluffed and handled each item.”