WATERMAN – If you ask Pete Robinson why he started the Holiday Lights Train 25 years ago, he’ll say he’s nuts.
If you ask his wife, Charleen, she’ll say “because he wants everyone to enjoy Christmas, whether they have money or not. And he’s nuts.”
Robinson begins setting up for the Holiday Lights Train on Oct. 1. During October, he hosts the Pumpkin Train and after Halloween, he starts setting up the more than 300,000 lights and handmade wire frames for the holiday attraction. During the week, Robinson conducts maintenance and works on making new arches and displays. This year’s rendition includes a Portillo’s Restaurant-themed display.
In the spring, Robinson hosts Easter Bunny train rides. The train also runs during the Waterman Lions Club Antique Tractor Show in July.
“I’ve made about 99 percent of everything, including building the train in 1990 and installing the train tracks,” Robinson said. “I do it because I love trains and I love Christmas. I’m lucky to be one of those people that gets to do what I love.”
The Holiday Lights Train, a quarter scale 15-inch gauge train, is located at the Waterman & Western Railroad in Lions Park, 435 S. Birch St. in Waterman. Rides on the train, visits with Santa Claus, popcorn, hot chocolate and coffee are free, with donations accepted. Professional photos with Santa and 20 different flavors of Grandpa Cole’s Old Fashioned Fudge, made by Charleen Robinson, are available for purchase.
“Although we do have a few sponsors that help with electricity, firewood and propane, almost everything is out of our pockets or with the help of people’s generous donations,” Charleen Robinson said. “We do it because it’s Christmas.”
Charleen Robinson said she counts the number of visitors based off of how many cups of hot chocolate are handed out, and not everyone drinks hot chocolate.
“Last year, we had 15,000 to 18,000 people stop by,” she said. “This year, I purchased 17 cases of hot chocolate and don’t think that will last the whole season. We also go through about 500 pounds of popcorn kernels a year.”
Charleen Robinson said she loves seeing familiar faces and enjoys meeting people from far away.
“People come from two to three hours away, it’s become a family tradition for them,” she said. “There’s even a family from China that comes every year. They make sure to take a ride on the train while they’re here visiting family.”
Nancy McAllister took her son Jim to the Holiday Lights train when he was a young boy, and now the family, including 2-year-old Dean and 6-month-old Collin, visit the train together. Jim’s wife, Sarah, also has been visiting the train since she was a young girl.
“It’s nice that the train is local and that everybody, no matter if they have money or not, can attend,” Sarah McAllister said. “We love seeing Santa and having refreshments by the fireplace, but the train’s always the best part. For us, it’s the start of the Christmas season.”
Bryan Stritzel of Sycamore and his family, including wife Brook, 7-year-old son Evan and 13-year-old daughter Abbey, have been visiting the train for more than eight years. This year, they brought Bryan’s mother Linda for the first time.
“It’s our family tradition,” Stritzel said. “We love to come out for the evening, ride the train and spend time together as a family. We love seeing Santa and it makes us excited for Christmas.”
Gary and Sue Schobert of Plano visited the Holiday Lights Train for the first time after reading about it in the newspaper.
“It sounded fun, something nice to do that’s local,” Gary Schobert said. “It’s the start of the holiday season and a fun way to get into that Christmas spirit.”
Pete Robinson said nothing will stop him from putting up the lights and hosting the train, including having heart surgery in October, having vandals destroy half of his handmade displays in 2014 or losing close friend Bob Ronning in September.
The 2018 Holiday Lights Train is dedicated to the memory of Ronning, who helped Robinson build the tracks and train and volunteered nearly every weekend.
“The train is good, old-fashioned fun,” Pete Robinson said. “I just love watching the little kids’ faces light up. I love helping people get into the holiday spirit. The train is our Christmas gift to the world.”