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Hills & Dales decks the halls

LaGRANGE – The staff at Hills & Dales is decking the halls this week in preparation for Christmas tours beginning on Saturday, and they have cooked up something extra special for visitors this year.

In honor of the home’s 100th anniversary, the staff at Hills & Dales are doing their best to bring the Christmas spirit into the classic Callaway home by putting additional emphases on the home’s annual holiday traditions.

“We have a small staff, so instead of creating lots of new events, we made each event we already did each year a little more special,” said Executive Director Carleton Wood.

Gingerbread house

The decorations are of course a well-known and beloved part of the estate’s Christmas tradition and have received extra attention this year, but they are far from the only festive element on display this year: This year the home will feature a scale replica of the house made of gingerbread.

“We took the architectural plans – the original 1916 architectural plans – and blew them up, and then we used those to cut out a base to build the house on, and I think that is one of the big reasons why it came out nice,” said Wood. “The scale and the proportions are right.”

“I constructed the whole house out of foam core board first, and those were my patterns that I could lay on the gingerbread and cut out my designs,” said Floral Designer David Brown. “Once it was all baked, it was a matter of coming in here (in the house) and getting it together, and I was praying that (would), and for the most part it did.”

The house was constructed using primarily edible materials including royal icing, chocolate covered pretzels, candy, cookies and royal icing. Fondant was also used to create the terra cotta effect on the roof.

“Joanna (Baxter) helped me in that she designed roof tiles, the trees and gave advice on how we could accomplish some of the things on the house,” said Brown. “It was a collaborative effort.”

Baxter organizes the annual Children’s Christmas event where children are allowed to make “gingerbread” houses made out of graham crackers, icing and candy, so she enjoyed the creative challenge of putting together the large gingerbread house.

“We were kind of struggling with, ‘Do we want this to be an exact duplicate? Do we want this to be a bit fanciful?’” said Brown. “So, it is kind of somewhere in between.”

Children’s Christmas Celebration Saturday

The tenth annual Children’s Christmas Celebration is set to feature Christmas ornaments in addition to the usual “gingerbread” houses, and the staff of the estate are excited to have families come out for the event.

“That (event) started out as just decorating cookies with icing,” said Wood. “That was the first year we did it… It kind of kept growing and growing and became gingerbread houses, and I guess that is partly what made us think of doing the house as a gingerbread house.”

Last year 250 children took home gingerbread houses that they made at the event, and this year the estate hopes for a similar turnout.

“There are young families coming in with young children, and they have a lot of fun just visiting with each other,” said Baxter. “… We think it’s important that it reaches the whole community. Anybody who wants to come can come.”

The celebration will also pay homage to the Hills & Dales Estate’s 100th anniversary with a special ornament for children participating in the event.

“So, we did a special 100th anniversary ornament for the children to be able to take home this year that is a Christmas tree from the Callaway home basically,” said Baxter. “Something representative of the home.”

The estate tries to have enough supplies on hand for anyone who would like to participate, but because it is a drop-in event, people are served on a first come, first serve basis. Organizers also plan to have live reindeer at the event.

Deck the Halls

This year, even the decorations within the house are above and beyond with special attention paid to the Callaway legacy and period-appropriate decorations.

“As far as the house, we’ve done a little more decorating, but (what) people need to understand about the home is that we decorate it with Mrs. Callaway in mind,” said Brown. “That she might not have gone all out with too much fru-fru. She liked to concentrate on plants and all live material, and so that’s what we try to do which is a challenge in and of itself because we’ve got four weeks of trying to keep all this greenery alive.”

The home is primarily decorated with plant materials gathered from around the estate which would have been Ida Cason Callaway’s preferred style of decoration.

“Everything we use is fresh,” said Wood. “A lot of people don’t realize that. People are so used to seeing artificial trees, artificial garlands, artificial wreathes. Everything we do is real.”

Those fresh elements highlight the carefully selected decorations that the estate hopes will match with what would have been on display around 1916 when the house was originally built.

“We used some her ornaments (on the tree), and (the trustees) wanted me to find ornaments reminiscent of the early 1900s,” said Brown. “… So, I did a little research, and looked up what did they use in the early 1900s, and of course it was all German stuff. It was pine cones and mercury glass ornaments, so I went and found that stuff, and then I found the cards because they had die cut cards they used a lot hanging on the tree. We went with that, and a lot of her ornaments did fit into that particular thing. I didn’t realize how many ornaments we still use today that are German-like.”

The staff was cautious not to go too far with the decorations though in fear of making it look like something other than a home where people could have lived their lives and celebrated the holidays with their family and friends.

“We have to make it look like they are living here, and so you wouldn’t have a whole lot of stuff in your bedroom,” said Brown. “… The public rooms are going to be the ones that are the most decorated, but it is still kind of an understated thing.”

Besides greenery, the home is decorated with elements true to the Callaway spirit like dried hydrangeas from outside garden decorating the stair case.

“From what we gather from the grandchildren, this is a little fancier then what she would have done, but we don’t have any pictures of the way the house looked in her younger years, so we don’t know exactly,” said Brown.

Overall, the staff hopes that visitors will enjoy the special features of this year’s decorations and be able to get into the holiday spirit during their visit.

“It is really just a fun time of year for visitors to come and see the house decorated and just get in the spirit of the season,” said Baxter.

Hills & Dales Estate plans to hold Christmas tours of the Estate beginning Saturday through Dec. 30 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. House and garden tours cost $15 for adults and $7 for students. The Children’s Christmas Celebration is scheduled for Dec. 17 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is free to the public, though supplies will be limited to first come, first serve. The estate is located at 1916 Hills & Dales Drive, near downtown LaGrange.

Reach Alicia B. Hill at alicia.hill@lagrangenews.com