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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Visitors enjoy the light display at Memory Farm near Elk Grove. Earl Sassman and his late wife, Judy, started decorating their property in memory of their 28-year-old daughter, Rhonda, who died 20 years ago. Now, thousands of memory ornaments hang from their trees.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Tim Vincent and his wife Cyndi, of Elk Grove, look for family ornaments hanging on wooden display trees at Memory Farm. Visitors have hung thousands of the bell-shaped ornaments over the years, and many return year after year to find them again.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Earl Sassman, the owner and founder – with his late wife Judy – of the Memory Farm, walks through the memory trees. Sassman and his wife began the holiday tradition in memory of their late daughter.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Visitors to the Memory Farm near Elk Grove can enjoy the extensive decorations, and they are also encouraged to write a memory message about a deceased family member on a bell-shaped wooden ornament. The ornaments are then displayed on trees, and families return year after year to find them.

Memory Farm near Elk Grove yields bounty of remembrances

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 26, 2011 - 10:45 am

They call it the Memory Farm.

With one devastating memory as the seed, the Sassman family has grown a Christmas tradition with thousands of memories for a whole community.

Earl and Judy Sassman's daughter Rhonda died of cancer at age 28, almost 20 years ago.

Though there wasn't much cheer, they started hanging Christmas lights that year, and felt a bit better.

"We hung them as a family," recalled Rhonda's sister, Durita Machado. "We laughed, we had fun."

From that, the tradition grew, with more elaborate decorations, and visitors started coming to the house in the historic farming community of Point Pleasant, south of Elk Grove near Interstate 5.

After years of trying a guest book, Judy Sassman had the idea to give visitors a way to incorporate their own memories.

Visitors are offered a bell ornament that Earl Sassman cut out of wood. They are painted white, with a red edge.

With a marker, visitors can paint a message for a loved one they've lost and hang it on a tree.

Now there are thousands.

Ones from past years go on wooden display trees where people can find them.

"It takes some time," said Tim Vincent of Elk Grove.

"That's the fun of it," said Cyndi, his wife. "It's like a little treasure hunt for a loved one."

As they hunt, they recall times spent with those people, Cyndi Vincent said.

She also snapped a cellphone picture of a past bell for a friend.

The friend is too old to make the trek to visit the bell he left for his wife, to whom he was married about 50 years, she said.

Newer bells go on a pair of real trees.

They are addressed to Bubba and Grandpa and The Greatest Mom on Earth and Great Grandpa Spud.

Karen Vail left one this year for her sister, Cynthia McCubbin, who died years ago from leukemia at age 18.

"She passed away right before Christmas," Vail said. "It just kind of makes me feel better."

The house has an assortment of reindeer, elves, Santas, stars, religious figures and enough lights to be seen from I-5.

But it is the forest of trees with names and messages in Spanish, Chinese, English and Russian that makes the display more affecting than many others more elaborate.

Troy Machado, Durita's husband, remembers one person who came saying he would just sit in the car and wait for the others.

In the end, he got out, wandered around and was moved.

"He said, 'I was bah humbug, but I have the Christmas spirit now,' " Machado said.

Machado stood outside the house (next door to where Earl Sassman was born 70 years ago), giving out bells and markers, and urging people to help themselves to cookies and hot cider.

They went through 14 gallons of cider one Saturday, he said.

A woman approached him.

"Is there a charge for this?"

"No," Machado answered.

"Are you sure?" She seemed unbelieving.

"Yes."

At the top of a 30-foot cut fir decked with 10,000 lights, there is a well-lighted angel and one special bell.

That is for Judy Sassman, who died in 2007.

Earl, though he has been sick, vows to keep it going.

"I've got cancer, but I'm doing all right," he said.

The Memory Farm is open evenings at 3446 Point Pleasant Road, south of the town of Franklin.

The last night each year is Christmas Eve.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carlos Alcalá



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