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Festival setup: First, you unload all the trucks
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Festival setup: First, you unload all the trucks

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At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, the first of 13 semitractor-trailers was backing into the loading dock at RiverCenter South in Davenport.

The trailers contained all the trees, garland, wreaths, steps, doors, walls, bells and other "back drop" items used each year for the Festival of Trees. 

Fresh displays — trees, room vignettes, gingerbreads and so forth — are created every year by designers, but the tables, walls and assorted shelving on which they are displayed and "filler" decorations all are broken down, packed up, hauled out, stored and then reassembled every year.

In charge of setup this year was Steve Morrison, Davenport, retired executive from SSAB, the steel plant in Montpelier. As "understudy" last year, he watched closely and took notes.

Spread out on a folding table on the first day of setup was Morrison's three-ring binder. It contained a fold-out drawing of the center floor as it would be set up for the festival. Volunteers unloading the trucks put things in the general area in which they would be used.

Taped to the table was a calendar of the month of November, with each square listing the jobs that needed to be done each day to meet the setup deadline.

That was last Friday, Nov. 11, the day when — after an inspection of the stage by the fire marshal — the hall was turned over to the designers to set up their creations.

"I knocked five days off our setup time this year," Morrison said. "Last year, I did an analysis of the number of people, what got done, whether the work was busy or slow. We eliminated a couple of days at the front and the end. We saved money in the days we have to rent the floor" (from the RiverCenter).

He also had a checklist with entries, such as "assemble toy tree structure," "set up Bo the Bear" and "hang banners."

Lots of activity

As he spoke, forklifts whizzed across the cavernous and still-empty RiverCenter, lights flashing and beeps beeping, while young men from Arrowhead Ranch, Coal Valley, pushed wheeled carts stacked with boxes marked "ceiling treatment" or "gift shop." The boxes are made of wood so the contents don't get crushed in storage.

Also in place were four "scissor lifts" that volunteers who are not afraid of heights would use later in the week to hang 16 three-dimensional silver bells from the ceiling, in keeping with this year's theme of "Bells will be Ringing."

The fork- and scissor-lifts were donated by area businesses, just like the services of the professional truck drivers who backed into the loading docks.

Two other volunteers arrived with a wheeled cart stacked with 50 two-dimensional red bells, made by volunteers especially for this year's event. An area business donated the space and laser cutter for their construction.

About 10 a.m., the Arrowhead teens were sitting on folding chairs, munching doughnuts. That is another detail of organizing Festival of Trees — taking care of volunteers to make sure they feel appreciated.

Later in the week, a crew of journeymen carpenters who already had worked a full shift arrived — with their tools — to set up all the walls, stands and shelving. The following Monday, Nov. 7, a crew of journeymen painters took up rollers and brushes to freshen up all the battered sets.

Veteran volunteers

Among the volunteers for setup was Ron Kessel, who headed setup of 15 years before Morrison took over.

"The guys are just good," he said of his fellow volunteers. "All you've got to do is say, 'I need those bells hung,' and there will be two or three guys on a lift."

If there were a prize for the oldest volunteer in setup, it might be Babe Reber, 85, whose area of expertise is the gift shop.

And if there were a prize for traveling the farthest, it might be Norm Lake. He got involved with the festival through his wife, who has since passed away. About three years ago, he moved to Missouri but has made the 5½-hour drive back, because he enjoys the work and camaraderie. His area of expertise is forklift driving.

Setup takes 10 days. By Friday, Nov. 11, all the backdrops were in place and the "embellishment crew" volunteers had taken over, ready for the designers to arrive first thing Saturday morning.

A major job of setup is the electrical wiring — the ceiling and all the displays twinkle with thousands of lights, so there have to be enough extension cords and outlets to accommodate them all. Exhibits, banners and the stage also have to be spotlighted. All that work is hired out to Rexroat Sound RS Companies LLC, Colona.

Of course, setting up wasn't the end of the job for Morrison and his crew. In the square on his calendar for Nov. 27 are the words "takedown starts."

Then, everything is done in reverse: Pack up and put away for next year.

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