Lighting the Way

By Jeff Hutton, Iowa Soybean Association

Mt. Pleasant Festival of Lights is southeast Iowa’s largest drive-through holiday light park, providing spectacular entertainment for wide-eyed visitors of all ages.

There’s nothing more magical than seeing children’s eyes light up as they see the sparkle of Christmas lights dancing in the wintry breeze.

And in southeast Iowa, the lights twinkle at the Mt. Pleasant Festival of Lights at the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Campground – a tradition that has enthralled and entertained thousands of visitors since 2013.

A 1.6-mile pathway showcases more than 140 displays as drivers navigate the twists and turns of the campground’s roadways.

What Happens in Vegas, Ends Up in Mt. Pleasant

The Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association has been around since 1950 when a reunion was held to highlight Iowa’s agricultural heritage.

The event has grown over the past 72 years. During the late summer, around Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of visitors make their way to the Old Threshers grounds, where they see steam engines and other agricultural machinery that helped to cultivate the ag landscape.

The association lines up entertainment each year, and through the International Association of Fairs and Expositions Conference, they secure different acts for their annual reunion.

But in 2011, at that same conference held in Las Vegas, Old Threshers CEO Terry McWilliams noticed something novel that would work for the association during the holidays.

“There was a workshop on Christmas drive-through light parks,” he says. “I came back to Mt. Pleasant after the conference, and we began to determine what we could do here at our large facility.”

An annual partnership resulted with different companies specializing in lighting displays, along with help from association members and numerous volunteers who would set up the displays.  

McWilliams says the first event in 2013 began with 60 Christmas light displays.

“As we have grown, we continue to lease more displays and have purchased many of our own,” he says. “We now have 146 displays, which cover 1.6 miles from where visitors enter our grounds to where they exit. We have mapped out the route using every inch of road space.”

Setup, Test Runs and Troubleshooting

Setting up the massive display takes hard work and significant time.

“This year, we set up lights from Oct. 9-11. It usually takes four to five weeks to set up, check the lights and equipment, and provide sponsor recognition,” McWilliams says, noting a test run occurs the weekend before Thanksgiving.

During setup, association members and volunteers prepare for problems that might impact light displays, such as strong winds, weather conditions, deer or other animals.

A Decade-Long Tradition

“Reaction to the Festival of Lights has been amazing,” McWilliams says. “It’s become a family tradition for many families and businesses in our area.”

They have the backing of the community with more than 200 sponsors.

And word has traveled far beyond Mt. Pleasant and Henry County about the impressive light display.

McWilliams noted that in 2021, 78 out of Iowa’s 99 counties were represented as carloads of wide-eyed visitors passed through the festival.

It’s hard to measure how many people have witnessed the light display during the 10 years of operation. While they don’t track attendance by person, they keep track of the number of vehicles visiting the beacon on the plains.

In 2013, McWilliams says 2,675 vehicles took the journey through the campground over the festival’s 25 days. In 2019, that number grew to more than 4,800 vehicles over 35 days. And in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers opened the campground for 37 days, and more than 9,000 vehicles flooded through.

“People wanted to get out of the house during COVID, and we had a safe event to do so,” McWilliams says.

Last year, nearly 7,000 vehicles passed through the festival over 36 days.

This year, McWilliams says the campground is open for 39 days, and the lights will be turned off after the final vehicle has passed through on New Year’s Eve.

“We’re on a good pace to have a great year,” he says. “Saturdays are always our busiest days.”

Agricultural Touchstone

The Midwest Old Threshers Association’s main event – the annual reunion at the end of August and beginning of September – honors the agricultural heritage of Iowa.

McWilliams says this theme continues during the Festival of Lights.

“The Old Threshers is a touchstone with Iowa’s agricultural past, and the connection is expressed in some of the light displays,” he says.

“We’re trying to preserve our ag heritage in the modern world through education and entertainment. When visitors drive through the light display, they see tractors, steam engines, a barn and animals. We tried to give it an ag Christmas twist while staying true to what the Old Midwest Threshers is all about.”

Family Fun

McWilliams says visitors have been enchanted by what they have seen over the past 10 years.

“For us, it’s been very positive,” he says. “The best reaction is seeing the kids. There is always a smile on their faces. That makes all the work worth it.”

McWilliams adds the focus on the Festival of Lights is no different than what Old Threshers does the rest of the year.

“The board of directors is just providing folks with something to do,” he says. “We’re providing an experience for folks to enjoy. The Festival of Lights is a continuation of that.”

Unique Experience

McWilliams says while the Festival of Lights has grown in size and stature and has become a tradition for so many in southeast Iowa, the personal touches and new display make it unique each year.

“Half of our leased displays are new this year,” he says.

There’s also the new tunnel of lights along the 1.6-mile route and the relatively new Santa House, which debuted last year.

“When visitors enter the facility, they are greeted by a large snow village under glass. There’s a fireplace, and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Santa will be there for photos,” McWilliams says. “It fills up on the weekends.”

A Special Time

Many holiday light displays dot the state, but McWilliams is particularly proud that this 10-year tradition is different from others.

“The people and the volunteers that I have here make it so special,” he says. “Everyone, our board, the volunteers – everyone has a place in their hearts for the festival. Our visitors can see those extra touches.”

The festival is open each evening from 5:30 to 9 p.m., including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Admission is $10 per family vehicle, $25 for limos, $30 for mini-coaches and $60 for full motor coaches.

For more information, Mt. Pleasant Festival of Lights or visit the association’s Facebook page.