The Memory Farm started with just a few lights, then grew to include lighted tractors and giant lollipops, elves, snowmen, Santa Clauses, a Nativity scene and a train that spews steam near the rural community of Franklin.
But the most popular attraction by far has been the trees covered with bells containing tributes from community members to loved ones who have died.
Earl Sassman and his late wife, Judy, started the annual display 23 years ago to honor their daughter when she died of cancer at the age of 28. On Thursday, Christmas Eve, hundreds of people are expected to descend on the Memory Farm on its final night.
Cancer will end the tradition as abruptly as it started the display. In November, Sassman, 74, learned he has leukemia after battling lung cancer for four years. He has decided not to continue with chemotherapy.
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“I don’t know how long I’m going to be around,” he said. “I don’t know, after something happens to me, what will happen to this place. Without this place, there isn’t a Memory Farm.”
The Sassman family has handed out 1,000 handmade white wooden bells trimmed in red each December. Visitors wrote messages to loved ones on the bells and hung them on trees. After Christmas, volunteers collected the ornaments and packed them away. Each year they were unwrapped and displayed again.
This year, the 7,000 wooden bells will be removed for the final time.
“When you get a couple of little children here 3 and 4 years old and they are writing on a bell for their grandparents and just kind of crying and putting it on the tree, and next year they come back and find the same bell and just stand out there, it just tears your heart out,” Sassman said. “It’s just beautiful.”
Ruth Kiehne dabbed at tears Tuesday evening as she showed her family the ornament with an inscription to her mother, Myrtle Broden, who died in 2007. “To the best Mom with Jesus in Heaven,” it reads.
Kiehne said she heard the long-time holiday display was ending and she wanted to return the ornament to her family.
The Kiehne family of Elk Grove and hundreds of others have traveled to the Memory Farm over the past few weeks to search for ornaments they had hung in tribute of a loved one. Many have hung for years, even decades. About 1,500 already have been retrieved, said Rick Sassman, Earl’s son.
Melody Ziemann of Elk Grove and her children searched Tuesday through the trees for ornaments she had hung in tribute of her grandfather and great-grandfather. “It’s emotional,” she said, tearing up. “I’ve brought them here every year of their lives.”
Nearby, Michael Riley of Elk Grove was examining ornaments with the help of his teenage daughters, Kaitlyn and Courtney. In 2013, his extended family hung seven ornaments with inscriptions to his father, Ron Riley, and sister-in-law, Candy Mashburn, who had recently died. The trio had come Saturday with other family members, but had failed to find the last ornament. The father and daughters were back Tuesday in hopes of locating it.
People can retrieve their ornaments after Christmas, but the lights will be turned off.
“It’s been good for the community,” Sassman said. “... Some nights there are 2,000 people out here. They park clear past the corner and well past the church.”
He said it took the family and volunteers two months to decorate the property before it opened annually to the public each Dec. 1.
Since his wife died of a stroke in 2007, Sassman has traveled 35 feet up in a cherry picker to place an angel on the top of a fresh-cut Christmas tree to commemorate her each year. The angel holds a gold, bell-shaped ornament that has a special message written by Earl. Other gold bells on the tree contain messages from other Sassman family members.
Tuesday, Troy Machado and Rick Sassman were checking lights and handing out hot cider and cookies. Both men said they are going to miss the family tradition, but understand Earl’s decision.
“Earl started something magical here without even trying,” said Machado, who is married to Earl’s daughter Durita.
Rick Sassman said that by asking families to retrieve their ornaments and to hang them on their own trees, the tradition has come full circle.
“How fitting to close on that,” he said.
Final night for Memory Farm
3446 Point Pleasant Road, Elk Grove