Rob Sheitler and his wife Joyce have decorated their rural Le Mars home and yard with Christmas lights and blow molds since they built their house in 1995.
In that time, the display—and the crowd coming to see it—has grown considerably.
“It started out small and it has grown to be one of the largest country displays in the state in the state of Iowa now,” Sheitler said.
“We estimate we have over 250- to 300,000 lights on all the trees, bushes, and fences,” he said. “Thousands of blow molds, wireframe decorations, street pole decorations donated from all the area towns.”
Sheitler and his wife run Christmas Acres on their farm outside of Le Mars in Northwest Iowa, about 26 miles northeast of Sioux City.
Sheitler has been decorating for Christmas since he was 10 years old, starting with his family’s farm and continuing with Joyce.
In almost 30 years, there have been two big changes to the way Christmas Acres operates. The first happened in 2012 when the Sheitler’s partnered with the Christian Needs Center, a Le Mars-based food bank and clothing resource.
Prior to that, people who came to see the decorations insisted on donating money to the Sheitlers, though they refused to take it until Joyce realized it could be put to better use than their electric bill.
“So that’s how this kind of all changed, is that all the money that comes in our little donation box at the end of our driveway, we give away to the Christian Needs Center,” Sheitler said.
In 2020, they donated $41,000; last year they took in $27,000. Over all the years, Sheitler said it adds up to $132,000. In 2020, they gave the center so much, the staff there took it out to local schools to pay off unpaid lunch balances.
Sheitler said it’s had a big ripple effect, and they’ve been able to help a lot of people through the donations.
The second change to Christmas Acres happened when word-of-mouth spread even farther.
“We started seeing the change probably about five, six years ago when all of a sudden, magazines would start doing stories, TV stations would start doing a story on us, and all of a sudden it’s like, wow, and then more and more people started coming,” Sheitler said.
Four years ago, Sheitler and Joyce added walking paths through their yard so people could park and walk through the display which has made it even more packed.
“It used to be, like you said, ‘Oh, let’s go drive and see the lights out in the country.’ And people did that,” he said. “And now people can park and actually walk the paths and see it up close.”
For the most part, the growth is down to word-of-mouth and having a presence on Facebook.
Sheitler said they have visitors from all over, too. In the tri-state area of Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska, and from states farther away, but he said there have been international visitors as well. Including Ukrainian refugees who visited the display last weekend.
“They were just absolutely blown away. So that’s the farthest they’ve ever come, he said of the Ukrainian group. “We’ve had big groups from Japan already that have been close, like in the Twin Cities and that, and so they’ve already been here.”
This year, the Sheitlers spent nine weeks hanging lights and reopened Christmas Acres on Nov. 19. That’s on top of the time spent baking for the bake shop they host in their garage.
The Sheitlers already run a bakery out of their house and in 2020 they tried putting out pies, bars, cookies, and other baked goods for visitors.
“It was absolute chaos,” Sheitler said. “And we’re still doing that. We still do it today. Every Friday and Saturday night.”
Every weekend, the garage is cleaned out in mere hours.
Sheitler said Christmas Acres can be found on its Facebook page, and people can visit whenever unless it’s raining or snowing. There is no formal check-in and people are free to park on either side of the road and walk through what they’re interested in seeing.
Donations are encouraged, but not required.
Sheitler said hosting Christmas Acres is fun, and he enjoys that it’s become such an attraction and the good they’ve been able to deliver, but he isn’t sure how long they’ll continue doing it.
“It is very, very time-consuming,” he said. “My plan is to retire in four years from the company I work for, and whether we still do this and take this on as a full-time thing, I don’t know. We do it year by year and we go from there.”
And this year they’re still welcoming busloads of people who come from miles, and sometimes hours, away.
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