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Phyllis Ashurst began decorating her home with just a few lights

by Nancy Hamlett

Phyllis Ashurst didn’t plan on becoming an annual Christmas attraction.

She strung a few lights to please her children. Added a few more the next year, and the next. And before she and her husband, Don, realized it, the lighting of their house became a tradition, and their house was known in the community as the Christmas House.

Ashurst lives in a tidy home next to the Seven-11 south of Gardnerville, and in a sense Ashurst came home when she and her husband moved there in 1977.

“I was raised on a ranch right across the river from here. My sister and her husband built this house, and we bought it from them,” said Ashurst. “My family goes back a long way.”

Ashurst’s family goes all the way back to 1882 when Peter Wilslef, her great-grandfather, bought the Pettigrew ranch, which is now the Carson Valley Golf Course. The ranch remained in the family until 1961. A flood in 1950 seriously damaged the ranch, but it was nothing like the flood of 1955 when fields were washed away and not a single fence remained on the property.

“We tried to rebuild,” said Ashurst. “But it was just too much damage. My family decided that they couldn’t make it any longer.”

It was also in 1955 that Ashurst and her husband moved to Sacramento. Don had a job with Aerojet as an engineer. Ashurst was a young mother of three.

“We moved back to Gardnerville after Don was laid off,” said Ashurst. “He operated a mobile television repair business and then he and a partner started the first cable television service to the Ranchos – Ashurst Kincade.”

Columbia Cable bought out Ashurst Kincade, which had expanded outwards from the Ranchos, in 1985. It is now owned by TCI.

Ashurst has three children, Steve, Gary and Marilyn – and five grandchildren who are the focal points of her life.

“They all live close to us and that makes it wonderful,” said Ashurst. “I’m there when I’m needed, and I’m there when I’m not needed. I tell the grandkids they’re stuck with their grandmother.”

Maybe stuck isn’t the right word. Ashurst is committed to her grandchildren. Joel Ashurst, the oldest, is 18 and goes to school at Coleville High School. He is a calf roper and team roper with the Douglas High School Rodeo Club and this year’s president of the organization. Ashurst attends almost every rodeo.

Kyle, Joel’s brother, is 11 years old. His love in life is sports. Any sport. He plays football, baseball and basketball. Ashurst is there, cheering him on.

Ashlee and Ross McKenzie are Marilyn’s children and live in Woodfords. Because of her daughter’s work schedule, Ashurst makes a trip every morning to pick up her grandchildren and deliver them to school. She keeps their orthodontist and doctor appointments. She ferries them to after school activities. She helps them with their homework.

“Ashlee loves soccer and plays in both the spring and fall leagues,” said Ashurst. “Somehow it seems that she has a practice or a game almost every day.”

Ross is a talented baseball player.

“Last year Kyle and Ross were in the same league,” said Ashurst. “When they played each other, I didn’t know which bleachers to sit in. What’s a grandmother to do?”

Someone once asked Ashurst why she continues to put up the Christmas decorations even though her children are grown.

“We couldn’t afford it in Sacramento. All we had there was a strand of lights along the eaves, and that was it,” said Ashurst. “But now the grandkids thoroughly enjoy it. And I’ve come to find out that the people passing our house appreciate it as well. I guess I do it for them.”

Ashurst recounted a story when, one Christmas, her doorbell rang. Two little girls proceeded to sing a Christmas carol to her.

“Then they thanked me for the Christmas decorations,” said Ashurst. “I’ll never forget that. It made me cry.”

Up until five years ago Ashurst put up all of the lights herself, but recently she has enlisted the help of Don and the grandchildren.

“Don does all the repairs on the lights every year and keeps things organized,” said Ashurst. “You’d have to ask him how many lights we have.”

“Don’t let her fool you,” said Don Ashurst. “Phyllis knows exactly how many lights are out there, and where each strand must go.”

A playful grin spread across Ashurst’s face. “Thirty one thousand lights this year.” She laughed. “It sounds like a lot, but when you start decorating those big trees and everything else, you need a lot of lights.”

The painted wood figures on the lawn are another example of Ashurst’s imagination and hard work.

“I made them all over the years. They’ve been so popular, I make them for craft fairs as well,” said Ashurst, although recently her work had been confined to smaller versions due to a foot operation. “But now I’m back in action. I can handle those big pieces of plywood again and I’ll be making more of the life-size figures.”

Ashurst said that she doesn’t worry about the power bill every December.

“We average our bill over the year, so I’m not aware of what the cost is,” said Ashurst. “Not that it would matter. It’s a tradition that will keep going and growing.”

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