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‘This is our gift to the community’

Fergus Falls couple turns their yard into winter wonderland this time each year

Jim and Pat Johnson decorate for Christmas in a big way.

The couple creates a winter wonderland in their rural Fergus Falls yard using more than 20,000 Christmas lights, over 60 mannequins and three to four outbuildings. The yard is transformed into a Santa workshop, an elf village, nativity scene and Christmas forest. Oh, and don’t forget Santa, his sleigh and all the reindeer, including Rudolph. They start decorating in late October and finish by Thanksgiving when they turn the lights on to start the holiday season.

“It’s so special to see the people driving by on that night just to see the decorations,” Pat said.

The display is open to the public from Thanksgiving Day through Epiphany or the 12 days of Christmas. While some see it as they travel on nearby Otter Tail County Highway 27, others view it closer while driving through the couple’s circular driveway. Many park their cars and walk through the displays.

Santa and Mrs. Claus make an appearance four nights out of the season. This year they will greet visitors and listen to children’s Christmas wishes from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 12 and 13 and Dec. 21 and 22. Two couples from the area take turns becoming Santa and Mrs. Claus for the special nights.

Each child receives a bag, personally prepared by Jim, of Christmas candies. On the Santa nights, guests can also get some tasty treats and apple cider in the Johnson’s home. Pat’s cinnamon bread is homemade, she said.

They never know how many might attend on those special nights, but they are prepared. One year Jim handed out 500 bags of candy over the four nights. Pat estimates there have been around 1,000 people taking in the lunch. And the couple donates it all.

“We’ve had people try to leave donations, but we turn them down,” Pat said. “This is our offering to the holiday season for others.”

Their display draws hundreds from the area and even some international visitors, they said. They’ve had people from Japan and Norway walk through their displays.

It’s a dream come true for Pat who envisioned the special holiday offering. She had the perfect opportunity to make it reality when she retired from a 33-year career at Otter Tail Power in 1998.

She started with a small barn. The doors were lopsided, and it needed some work, she said. By the end of the first day, she had removed the doors and much of the building’s front. She replaced it all, and with paint and creativity, she made it into a play area for the couple’s grandchildren. At Christmas time, it becomes the perfect Santa’s workshop.


She didn’t stop there. Pat also built a small log cabin and church. She even constructed the small pews and found the perfect stained glass window for its front. Another small structure in the midst of the elf village is perfect for kids, with several doors and easy-to-access crawl spaces. The couple’s son, Darrin, helped with the detailed painting of some of the displays, including the reindeer in the yard and a picture of Jesus in the church.

While they were busy completing the structures, Jim was working. He retired two years ago after a 44-year career with Olson’s Furniture in Fergus Falls. Now the two work side by side putting the lights and mannequins in place. When the decorating is complete outside, it’s time to start in their house. Pat put her Christmas village in her mother’s vintage curio cabinet. It’s on display year round, she said. They decorate their tree, put out their Christmas knick knacks and display their 39 Christmas bears.

The land is part of Pat’s home farm, Jim said. They built a house on the property, where they raised their three sons. People from the area remember the spot. It’s where the boys raised sweet corn on three acres and another acre of garden produce. It was an 18-year venture for the boys who saved the money for their college funds. “We had a lot of traffic here at that time,” Pat says with a smile.

They don’t sell sweet corn anymore, but the couple certainly enjoys their Christmas offering to the public. To help with the traffic around their home during the Christmas season, the Otter Tail County Highway Department has put up flashers to inform drivers of the area. Parking is limited to the west side of the road. The two are in their mid-70s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

“This keeps us young and active,” Pat said. “And it’s something special to us…This is our gift to the community.”

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