Lamp lighting brightens the holiday season

ERICK BENGEL PHOTO With her dad, Brian Taylor, assisting her, Lilli Taylor, 11, of Cannon Beach, places the kerosene lantern into the lamp post in Sandpiper Square, kicking off the 2014 Christmas season in Cannon Beach. Maggie Neuwirth, 11, of Cannon Beach, also served as a lamplighter.

With this year’s lamp lighting under its belt, Cannon Beach’s 2014 Christmas season has begun.

The ceremony, dating back to 1973, drew about 100 people to Sandpiper Square on Saturday afternoon. But the turnout was lighter than usual, said Margo Dueber, who organized and emceed the event.

“I’ve seen it when you couldn’t even see the sidewalk,” added Mayor-elect Sam Steidel.

Two 11-year-old fifth graders from Cannon Beach who attend Seaside Heights Elementary School — Maggie Neuwirth and Lilli Taylor — served as this year’s lamp lighters. With the help of her dad, Brian Taylor, Lilli Taylor placed the kerosene lantern into the old-fashioned coach lamp.

Dueber remarked on the smoothness of the ceremony: “That was just about the most perfect lamp lighting we’ve ever had,” she said after the girls had done their part.

The Seaside High School Jazz Choir sang a round of Christmas carols, led by their teacher, Vanessa Unger. Later, Paul Dueber and David Robinson (filling in for Bill Steidel, Sam Steidel’s father) sang the town’s official Christmas song, “Christmas in Our Hometown,” composed by Bill Steidel for the Dueber family when Paul Dueber, Sr. died on Christmas Day 1967.

This was the first lamp lighting Bill Steidel, who was ill Saturday, has had to skip.

To wrap up the half-hour ceremony, the West Linn High School Ensemble, directed by Barbara Fontana, made a guest appearance, performing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

The lamp lighting tradition began during a period when Cannon Beach was suffering a scarcity of visitors. The 1964 Alaskan tsunami had swept away the old Fir Street Bridge. The 1973 oil crisis was forcing many vacationers to conserve gas and cut down on traveling.

That’s when the townspeople “banded together” to find ways of bringing people into town, Margo Dueber said. And it’s where the idea for a Charles Dickens-themed Christmas season with Dickensian events came from, Sam Steidel said.

Not only did the Coaster Theatre perform “Scrooge,” but “the entire town would become a Dickens kind of atmosphere, and for quite a few years, even the shop owners would dress up in slightly period clothing,” he said.

The original lamp lighter, Jay Schwehr, lit the lamp in Sandpiper Square for almost 40 years. During the holiday season, he rang his bell and lit the lamps along Hemlock Street at around 4 p.m. every day. Coaster Properties retired all but the lamp in the square several years ago.

When Schwehr’s health began to decline in 2010, the lamp lighting duty passed to selected Cannon Beach grade-schoolers. Schwehr died in November 2013.

“I think Margo does a tremendous job of pulling this all together each year,” said Sally Steidel, Bill Steidel’s wife and Sam Steidel’s mother.

The lamp lighting, which provided a feast for the eyes, was preceded by a feast for the sweet tooth at the Cannon Beach Library, where more than 20 library volunteers and board members, working in shifts, hosted the annual English-style tea service.

Pia Shepherd, a Cannon Beach resident, was among the first to arrive that afternoon with her 1-year-old granddaughter, Caroline Shepherd, of Gearhart, in her arms.

“The cookies are the best,” said Pia Shepherd after helping herself to the stupefying variety of cookies and treats laid out on a long table, bookended by volunteer Judy Wood and Carolyn Owens serving tea and cider, respectively.

More than 50 kinds of sweets — spritz cookies, sugar cookies, thumbprint cookies, chocolate chip cookies, golden syrup cookies, peanut butter bars, biscotti, almond logs, whoopie pies, etc. — beckoned the helpless patrons toward the children’s room.

Roine Schwehr, Jay Schwehr’s wife who died in 1992, began hosting the tea at Bell Harbor (now the site of Ecola Creek Lodge) in 1973, the same year the lamp lighting tradition began, according to Carla O’Reilly, a library volunteer.

After the tea went on a several-year hiatus, the library took it over in 2006, said Marlene Laws, a library volunteer, dressed in Victorian attire.

Three Portland residents — Ann Bellerby, Carolyn Gregg and Shelley Larkins — drove to Cannon Beach specifically for the library’s tea, which they stumbled upon last year and vowed they would attend this year.

When asked why they came all the way to the coast, Larkins, sitting at a small table with her friends in the library’s main room, declared flatly, “We love books.”

“And cookies,” Bellerby added, chuckling.

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