Tim Murphy pauses in his classroom while putting the finishing touches on a few plywood cutout characters that will join dozens of others this year at Candy Cane Lane. The holiday extravaganza has grown in leaps and bounds since it began 25 years ago.
Tim Murphy pauses in his classroom while putting the finishing touches on a few plywood cutout characters that will join dozens of others this year at Candy Cane Lane. The holiday extravaganza has grown in leaps and bounds since it began 25 years ago.

WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. — What started 25 years ago with a few neighbors putting up Christmas decorations has become nothing short of a phenomenon.

Candy Cane Lane now is a regional destination for a month each year, as multitudes of children of all ages make that slow automobile trip through a magical maze of wonderment. Behind it all is high school art teacher Tim Murphy, who notes that it could just as easily have been called Lollipop Lane, but for the size of plywood sheets.

“We called it Candy Cane Lane because we could get eight candy canes out of a sheet of plywood,” he said.

The plywood candy canes, placed alongside streets, mark the path of the journey.

During the early years, the route was just Murphy’s property on East Clark Street and those of his neighbors on the block. It now extends six blocks and involves 16 homes.

The number of people seeing the art, light and musical extravaganza has grown exponentially over the years. Murphy said an estimated 100,000 cars went through it last year.

The line of cars full of people coming to see the attraction in the community of 8,500 sometimes stretches all the way to Interstate 57, about two miles away.

The main focus of Candy Cane Lane is the property of Murphy, a lifelong West Frankfort resident. Dozens of cartoon cutout characters, moving objects, thousands of lights and live figures, including Santa, adorn his property, about a city block long.

Much of the scenery involves depictions of beloved cartoon and some human characters. Murphy creates a new scene every year.

The first was comprised of characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip. Disney characters always are in abundance

Murphy keeps up with the latest crazes. This year’s display, for instance, includes stars of the popular reality television show, “Duck Dynasty.”

“It started out being just the love of the characters,” Murphy said.

“I love all cartoon characters. Then I see little kids go up and hug these plywood cutouts, and I realize there’s more to it. That’s real to them. To me, it’s just a piece of artwork. To them, it’s more. I kind of owe it to people.”

The latest hit movies — especially animated features such as “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “Cars” — provide inspiration for many of the new characters each year.

There also is a new music star each year. Murphy began in the first year with his favorites — the Beach Boys. Recent years have featured Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.

The high school art class helps prepare the displays, but Murphy purchases the raw materials such as the plywood, paint and lights. This year, the bill for the plywood and paint alone will be about $500.

Other expenses include the hundreds of lights, cables and the cost of electricity used to light the scenes and power the moving displays such as a candy cane factory.

For several years, Murphy footed the bill without any assistance. But as annual costs increased to nearly $1,000, he installed a donation receptacle. Donations last year totaled about $3,800.

“I’m always $400 to $600 in the hole, but I don’t care — it’s a passion of mine,” Murphy said. “If I have any left over, I put it back into Candy Cane Lane.”

He gives some of the money to neighbors for extra electricity used.

The attraction officially opens on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Day. But the work begins much earlier.

Besides creating the artwork and setting up the displays, Murphy runs more than 500 cables connecting 150 floodlights and other electrical objects.

“It takes me three full days to run power cables,” he said. “I’m the only one who can do that, because I know my circuits.”

Many of his student volunteers dress up as elves and hand out thousands of candy canes to visitors. They work in shifts — two each day. Santa greets the children and receives their Christmas gift lists.

The city benefits indirectly. Many of the thousands of people who pass through Candy Cane Lane each year purchase gasoline or eat at local restaurants.

Murphy said the Dairy Queen that greets visitors leaving the route takes in more money in December than any other in Illinois.

“It’s a small, 30-day event for West Frankfort,” he said. “It helps this community, and I’m a big West Frankfort person.”