Santa Claus land is Grade A Entertainment

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By Don White

When it comes to ideas for alternative crops, a Kentucky farmer may have the most electrifying of all time.

Paul and Darnell Ruley have four acres of brightly lit Christmas decorations on their 250-acre spread in Marion County.

What started with "just a handful" of holiday displays 30 years ago has grown into a menagerie containing over a half million lights, according to the couple.

The spectacle of lights and sounds attract thousands of visitors from as far away as Somerset, Owensboro, and Indiana.

A life-long resident of the Loretto community, Paul has spent 56 of his 61 years working on a dairy farm that now includes a herd of 80 to 100.

"About all I do is milk cows and work on Christmas lights," says the man bearing a remarkable resemblance to popular images of Santa.

Ruley says he's "always liked Christmas," and was encouraged early on by the joy his decorations brought his mother and four young daughters.

"I put out 10 or 15 little things the first year, and next thing you know we had the yard filled up," he said.

The display now includes hundreds of items and is open from mid-November to New Year's Day at 165 Stringtown Road.

After-Christmas sales help the Ruleys add to their collection every year, plus they're always searching for unique items at yard sales and flea markets for what they now bill as "Santa Claus Land."

A 12-foot wreath valued at $18,000 and two eight footers that used to belong to the Ford Motors plant in Louisville dominate the front of a barn.

A shipping crate for a Model T Ford has been converted into a home where Santa greets youngsters. Paul and his son-in-law alternate playing Santa in the Ho Ho House while taking turns milking each evening.

For the past six years, the couple has lived in their four-car garage, leaving their former home next door and several other buildings on the property for storage of Christmas decorations.

The garage with loft is an open area containing a kitchen and plenty of shelving for display of dozens of cookie jars, Barbie dolls, and holiday decorations. Next to a giant Christmas tree are mechanized items including a Santa climbing a very high ladder.

"It's fun to watch the older people turn into kids again for a while as they stand here and take all this in," said Ruley, noting he also enjoys helping entertain the busloads of handicapped youngsters who come every year.

Inside and out, visitors are treated to Christmas music via a computer containing 150 to 200 songs. Speakers in trees and on the buildings send the sounds reverberating off the rolling hills surrounding the farm.

"You can hear it for three or four miles, and the only people who don't like it are the deer hunters," says Paul.

Anticipation of the joy to come makes it easier to endure all the work required to make the scene safe and operational, he said.

With help from handyman David Bickett, it takes about 10 weeks of "working day and night" to get it all up.

"Some nights I don't go to bed at all... just go on from here to the dairy barn," he said.

For 26 years, while income from the farm was stable, the Ruleys refused to accept donations from visitors to their vibrant display.

Now, they have a donation box for those who can afford to pay.

The only other charge is $5 for a photo with Santa in the Ho Ho House.

Last year they took in more than enough to pay the electric bill, which Paul feels will top $2,000 this season.

Any excess funds go toward buying more decorations.

There are also unexpected expenses, such as repair of the full-sized Grinch figure jailed behind the Santa Claus house. He lost his head a few winters ago in a fire. Darnell saved the day by finding a new head at a costume store in Louisville.

Then there was the time the cows got inside one of the storage buildings, causing damage and getting tangled up in the lights.

"I had decorated cows running all over these fields," said Paul.

The Ruleys like to share their stories with visitors, but it might be a good idea to schedule a visit well before Christmas.

"We talked so much last year that we lost our voices," said Paul. "We were still squeaking six weeks after Christmas."