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Final Farewell: Beloved ‘Memory Farm’ Turns Its Lights Out After 23 Years

Every December, thousands of visitors come to the Sassman’s extravagantly decorated house that sits in the middle of the Elk Grove countryside. But it’s not just the bright lights against the backdrop of a cold, night sky that pulls them there. It’s not the Santa-driven train in the backyard or the swinging snowman on the front porch. Nor is it just the warm apple cider, burning firepit or the fact that almost every tree, bush and walkway is outlined with festive lights. The Christmas lights are solely the entryway into the beautiful and moving journey through what really draws so many there: a commemorative tradition that has become known as the Memory Farm.

The Memory Farm is forest of handmade, wooden trees that are filled with ornaments on which visitors have the opportunity to write the names of passed loved ones. The farm is set up in the Sassman’s backyard amid the multitude of lights and their arrangements, which are meant to remind visitors that the Christmas is a season of joy and peace. But the trees and the wooden bells are there to provide a space for people to pause and remember the ones they have lost.

“I can walk out there right now and get very emotional. And it’s not because the Christmas lights, it’s because of everything that’s happening out there,” said Earl Sassman. “You talk to people who have lost someone and they give you ideas on how they coped with it…The bells are something to keep memories alive. It’s so easy to go along and forget about things.”

The annual Christmas tradition started in 1992 after Earl and his wife, Judy, lost their daughter Rhonda to cancer. What began as a simple hanging of lights in commemoration of their daughter, who loved Christmas lights, transformed over the years to an opening of their home to anyone and everyone who had someone of their own to commemorate.

In the early years, Earl would make 30 to 40 memory ornaments, but for the past five years, 1,000 ornaments a year have been made and filled out by attendants, which are all hanging on 21 wooden trees. Nearly 8000 ornaments currently hang on the forest of memories.

“I never would of thought it would’ve got to get this magnitude,” said Earl, whose wife is the one who thought up the idea of creating this community and familial bonding time. The Memory Farm received an additional bell in 2007 after Judy passed away. This bell, however, was not placed on any of the wooden trees. Held by the angel on top of the enormous and gorgeously lit tree that sits in the middle of the backyard is the bell Earl filled out in memory of Judy.

Now, after 23 years of hosting this beautiful and powerful tradition, Earl decided 2015 will be the Memory Farm’s last.

Earl has been diagnosed with cancer and, with his health deteriorating, he wanted to end the tradition he and Judy started because he didn’t want the family to feel obligated to continue the tradition, which though personally and communally rewarding, is a lot of work to put on. The family feels like the timing is right, but they say it’s still difficult to see it go.

“It’s truly so sad for us that it’s coming to an end because it’s been such a huge part of our lives for 23 years,” said Earl’s daughter, Durita Machado, who never believed the Memory Farm would take off the way it has. “[At first] my brother and I thought, who in their right mind is going to drive all the way out to the country to fill out an ornament?…I never would of thought that it has grown into what it is now. It’s truly amazing when you go out there and see so many ornaments.”

To prepare for the December 1 opening, Earl’s son Rick and son-in-law Troy Machado begin hanging lights the first week of October. For the estimated five hours the lights are on daily from the first of December until Christmas Eve, Troy and Rick are there welcoming and talking to visitors, handing out bells, and providing a cozy place to congregate and commemorate.

The utility bill for the month of December is between $900 and $1,000, but Earl sees it as a “pretty cheap gift” for all of the pleasure the exhibit gives. Certainly preparation and hosting is a tiring task, but for Earl and the family it’s more than worthwhile.

“Yes, it is a sacrifice,” said Troy, “but on the other hand it’s not really a sacrifice when you get to experience it and all the people that we’ve met and their stories. It makes you feel good inside that you’re actually helping so many people,” said Troy who hasn’t spent a single Christmas Eve at home with his nine-year-old daughter since he is always at the Memory Farm that night.

Return visitors talking with the Sassman family, who are seen standing near the table of cider and cookies, express their gratitude for the years of memories and their sadness to see it for the last year.

One of Earl’s favorite memories is of visits from service people who hang an ornament in memory of whole units who have been killed. He also reminisces on ornaments hung for road collision fatalities and couples who have gotten engaged on his property. Troy recalls 30 to 40 visitors placing ornaments on the trees for the individuals killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

After spending a few minutes on the Memory Farm, it’s obvious that the Sassman family has created something special that reaches the hearts of so many. The bright lights attract children and fill everyone with Christmas spirit, while the small forest of missed souls reminds people to cherish moments spent with loved ones and to count their blessings. The good it brings, if even for one person, is the reason the family has done it for so many years.

“It seems like if you can change the life of one person for Christmas then you’ve done enough. You don’t have to change 100 lives,” said Earl.

Earl and his family are not ready to think about what they will do with all the decorations, but they’re certain there are some they will never get rid of, such as the lollipops made by Judy and the nativity scene and large train display which were a family collaboration.

As the Christmas season approaches its end, so does the Memory Farm. Visitors who stop by for their final visit can find their ornaments and take them home to remember the Memory Farm on future Christmas trees.

“I’ll miss the camaraderie with the people,” said Earl. “But as long as we can keep the memories of that alive, then we’ve done okay, I think. I do believe if the message you’re putting out is very valuable and very emotional for people and genuine, they will come.”

The Memory Farm will turn out its lights for a final time on Christmas Eve. Visit the Sassman house while you still can, located on 3446 Point Pleasant Rd, Elk Grove. You might just be one of the many, many lives the Memory Farm has touched over the years.

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The Sassman family welcomes visitors to their home

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The Sassman family poses for a family photo. Earl Sassman stands at center.

 

Photos by Bethany Harris

 

About the author

Liliana Nava

Liliana Nava is a University of California, Davis alumni with a B.A. in Communications and English. She is an aspiring journalist that loves interacting with people, writing, apes, Cosmopolitan and bubbles. She strives to provide readers with the utmost professional, comprehensive and reliable information encompassing the Sacramento region.

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