DAVID CITY, Neb. — They’re calling it a “Christmas miracle,” courtesy of the folks at Hallmark, in this eastern Nebraska farm town.
David City, population 2,900, sure needed a shot in the arm.
One of the town’s biggest employers, Fargo Assembly, announced that it was closing this fall, subtracting about 190 jobs.
Traffic had declined on Nebraska Highway 15 through town after three years of construction projects, hurting local businesses.
An annual Christmas kickoff event had faded away after the spark plug behind the event, a local flower store owner, died.
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Then, almost out of the blue, the Hallmark company announced that it was coming to town, with plans to transform the town square into a “winter wonderland” as part of a company effort to pump up communities that have seen some setbacks.
David City was picked because of its bad fortune, but also because it was the hometown of the greeting card company’s late founder, Joyce C. Hall.
The result? Close to 5,000 people crowded into town for “Christmas Comes Early to David City” on Oct. 30 to see the donated new decorations. As a Hallmark Channel video crew filmed, Santa Claus arrived in a Model T Ford, local choirs sang carols and kids signed letters to Santa. Santa even took a side trip to a local nursing home.
“The impact has been huge,” said Kelcie Keeling, executive director of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce. “It was the perfect gift that we just really needed. It gave us that morale boost that was lacking.”
Now, David City is planning a series of extra Christmas events beginning Wednesday to capitalize on the Hallmark decorations and a steady stream of calls from potential visitors.
Hallmark, whose cable TV channel features wall-to-wall Christmas movies this time of year, launched a “Hometown Christmas” initiative this year. The company staged a star-studded “Christmas Con” event in New Jersey and built 15 new homes in an Alabama town ravaged by a tornado.
The “Christmas Comes Early to David City” event was part of the initiative, designed to create “Hallmark-worthy holiday moments” in selected small towns, according to a company press release.
It sure worked in David City, according to Anthony Hruska, the pharmacist/owner of David City Discount Pharmacy.
“It was exactly what you’d think a ‘Hallmark moment’ would be,” Hruska said of the Oct. 30 event. “You could hardly move in our store. And everyone was in a festive mood.”
“People are still coming to town,” he added.
Bobbi Schmid, owner of the Northside Cafe and service station, said a committee of local business owners got only about a month’s warning to line up choirs, install new Christmas lights downtown and arrange for everything from portable restrooms to selfie stations for photographs.
About the time exhaustion would set in, Schmid said someone else would volunteer to help out, lending a forklift or offering to drive shuttle buses.
“You couldn’t believe the generosity of people,” she said. “It was truly a community event.”
That isn’t always the case in David City, which has two high schools, a public school and Aquinas Catholic that compete for attention. In the past, local flower shop owner Jolene Fichtl had organized a Christmas kickoff event, complete with horse-drawn carriage rides around the town square.
But after Fichtl died in 2016, that event faded away. Attempts at launching other communitywide celebrations in town haven’t taken off.
Schmid said that during the past three years, truckers and other potential customers detoured around David City because of construction work on Highway 15 and renovation of the town square. Downtown businesses literally had to greet customers through the back door, she said. But the Hallmark event, Schmid said, is bringing back traffic and the curious.
A series of “Christmas on the Bricks” nights in David City have been hurriedly scheduled to showcase the new look inspired by Hallmark. The set of Candy Cane Lane used in a seven-minute video produced from the Oct. 30 event was initially supposed to be going back to Hallmark, but Keeling said it has now been donated to the community.
The set will be open for viewing one night a week from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ford/Goodyear Building, 312 Fifth St. in David City, beginning Wednesday. The Candy Cane Lane set also will be open on Dec. 11 and 18. There will be horse-drawn carriage rides, and businesses are being encouraged to stay open late on those Wednesday nights.
A tour of local homes decorated for Christmas is also scheduled for Dec. 14.
“It was a Christmas miracle that we definitely needed,” Keeling said.