The lights were one thing. At her last count, Ricki Koch estimated there were more than 35,000 of them.
But what set apart the Wonder on Washburn Street each holiday season was the dazzling array of Christmas music, thingamajigs, candy canes and Ricki, the Candy Cane Lady herself, that drew Missoula’s kids, no matter how old, out of their cars and into the Koch driveway.
For 28 years Ricki and her husband Dave, a quiet but skilled and creative craftsman, lit up the night sky west of Russell Street each evening from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve.
“This was my mom’s baby, this was her dream,” said Tara Twa Barba Schmelebeck, Ricki’s oldest daughter. “It was kind of a famous place to go to see Christmas stuff.”
Sadly, the lights aren’t on and Santa’s not snoring at 320 Washburn this year.
Ricki Koch (pronounced “Cook”) had been battling health issues, but her death on Aug. 27 at age 73 was unexpected, Schmelebeck said. She left behind a generation of memories, a garage full of neatly stored Christmas stuff and a grieving husband and family.
Every year the Kochs had to start building the display the first of October to have it ready for the grand lighting at dark on Thanksgiving. Every year, Ricki cried when it came time on New Year’s Day to take it all down.
It was agonizing to Dave Koch, also 73, but he wasn’t up to doing it without Ricki this year, his stepdaughter said.
“Like I told him, it’ll hurt if you do it and it’ll hurt if you don’t,” Schmelebeck said. “It’s hard enough not to have Mom at Christmas, but to have Thanksgiving last week and know the lights weren’t coming on that night after all these years ...”
But, oh, when they did.
The Kochs asked visitors, if they were able, to park in the boulevard on the dead-end stem of Washburn and walk into the driveway, thus keeping it clear for buses from area senior living homes.
Ricki had hip surgery three years ago, and suffered from COPD and emphysema that strapped her to an oxygen bottle. In recent years she set up a chair in the garage and waited there from 6 to 9 p.m., seven nights a week, for the wonder-seekers to approach her.
Schmelebeck said before that, guests were greeted straightaway by her mom at the gate, offering candy canes to the children but always asking permission from their parents first. Last year Wal-Mart gave them a good deal on 3,000 of the hard-candy goodies.
“My mother was 5-foot-nothing, and I always told my students at school the trick: As long as you get shorter than she is, she’ll give you a candy cane,” said Schmelebeck, who was known as Mrs. Barba to 27 years of elementary school students at Target Range before retiring in June. She reconnected with her high-school sweetheart last year and they married in April.
One of Dave Koch’s early inventions was a 3-foot replica of the Koch home. Inside, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus snored away in bed. Every so often they’d wake up, wipe sleep from their tiny eyes, mumble something and go back to sleep.
On the walls of the model house were pocket pictures of the kids — Schmelebeck, her brother and two sisters, and Dave’s son and daughter, then the grandchildren and, as years went by, 11 great-grandchildren.
Dave built a snowman merry-go-round that goes round and round, a Disney house populated by Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, etc., and a Loony Tunes house with the likes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A toy train circled its train house, and a working Ferris wheel gave rides to wood cutout figures with the names of the grandchildren on them.
Candy cane stakes lined both sides of the drive, and Christmas music would play as you walked in.
“Six o’clock was my favorite time,” Schmelebeck said. “I didn’t like it when it went off, I always liked it when it went on, so I’d get here before 6 and it was dark and all of a sudden, bing!, the music started and the lights went on.”
Each year brought new features to the extravaganza.
“Got started and couldn’t stop,” Dave Koch said.
Ricki wouldn’t let him stop, would she?
“That’s about right,” he said with a smile.
Schmelebeck said besides a deep love of Christmas and people, her mother’s inspiration came from Christmas light tours when the kids were growing up. Their favorite destination was the Martha’s Court neighborhood off Gharrett Street.
It was after her children were grown, and Ricki and Dave married and moved into the Washburn Street home in 1987, that her imagination took flight, thanks to his handyman skills.
“We’ve got all kinds of really cool, wonderful stories,” Schmelebeck said. “They’ve gotten beautiful letters from kids, Dear Santa letters, because kids really believe this is where Santa lives.”
The future of the Christmas display is murky, but with the heart and soul of it missing, Schmelebeck isn’t optimistic.
“It was bound to end, unfortunately,” she said. “My mother was trying to convince one of the kids to do it, but it wasn’t our dream, wasn’t our vision. It was hers.”
People don’t realize what a tremendous amount of work it took to put up and take down each year, or the dedication Ricki and Dave put in, missing their grandchildren’s Christmas concerts and Grizzly basketball games.
Schmelebeck still has trouble speaking of the Christmas display in past tense.
“It’s a labor of love, it really was,” she said. “My stepdad did it for my mom because it made her happy. And my mom loved it because she wanted to make people happy. She wanted to take over something that she thought was missing in Missoula when it stopped at Martha’s Court.
“It was her dream. It was what she wanted.”