Hawthorne, Starke residents revive Christmas display to honor beloved display-maker

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Cara Poe’s island of misfit toys lives on her grassy front yard in Hawthorne. 

Made from PVC pipes and old lights her husband Jimmie and she salvaged from St. Augustine trash cans, the couple displays their Christmas spirit through lights and wrapped silhouettes.  

The Poes felt compelled to create a large display after the man most known in the community for his holiday decorations could no longer hang lights, set out train tracks or create his magnificent presentations. 

Richard Mason hangs Christmas decorations for a display that drew an annual crowd of thousands. (Courtesy of Madison Chapman)

Five years ago, Richard Mason became physically unable to decorate his home on NE County Road 234, leaving the community without his well-known displays that drew in thousands each year. 

In the 1970s, Mason started to gain attention for his Christmas decorations, and by the 1990s, an estimated 40,000 people would visit them each year. 

Over the years, his celebration of lights grew, and it became a hit, according to his daughter Belinda Chapman. Her street filled up with cars. At one point, Mason used more than 100,000 lights, she said. 

When he couldn’t build the displays any longer, residents were quick to notice. 

“We noticed the display wasn’t there,” Cara Poe said. “And it’s like, ’Oh my goodness, I hope nothing happened to mister.’”

Growing up in Gainesville, Cara Poe grew up looking at Mason’s displays, trying to find the little details he would change each year to add excitement. Last year, the tables turned when Mason went to the Poes’ house and looked at their lights. It was the last display he saw. 

Chapman said she heard a “clunk” that night after Mason suffered a stroke going outside to turn off his lights. He died about a month later in January of 2021 at age 83. To keep the memories of Mason alive, his daughter and granddaughter Madison Chapman distributed his decorations to two local residents, including about 80 decorations to Poe. 

Madison Chapman said they gave away about 110 of her grandfather’s decorations valued at about $30,000 because she didn’t want to sell them to strangers. She wanted to give them to people she trusted would take care of the décor and use them correctly. 

Belinda Chapman said her father started creating his own displays to make her happy because she loved the sight of Christmas lights. 

The Chapmans believed they grew up with Santa.

“It was still for me,” Belinda Chapman said. “And when I got too old, it was for the community.”

David Terrell used to bike near Mason’s home, seeing the display as a Windsor Christian Academy student. Now as a 41-year-old, he and his wife Tanya have a display with some of Mason’s decorations. 

Tanya Terrell, who is a self-proclaimed “Christmas nut,” originally wanted to decorate the Chapman home. Instead, Mason’s family gave her about 30 decorations including lawn figurines to use on her property in Starke. She used the items to make a display the community can enjoy while honoring Mason’s memory through building her own decorations. 

 “I want to try [to] keep it as authentic as to what he did as possible,” she said. 

Cara Poe said she hopes to do the same at her home, which is located on SE County Road 219A near the intersection of SE 24 Avenue.  An over 3-foot “Merry Christmas” structure which Mason created himself using PVC pipes, sits at the end of her front yard on the fence. 

Using his designs, she wraps metallic trains, gingerbread men and other Christmas-related frames with white plastic to protect them from moisture and spiders. 

Jimmie and Cara travel across their 4-acre property using a golf cart to decorate their home. They opened the display on Thanksgiving for people to see. Visitors can park at the Eden Baptist Church two doors from the house and peruse the walk-through display, which was inspired by Mason’s own walk-through set-up.  

So far, about 200 people have stopped to see the display. 

The Terrell display, located on SE 125th Terrace near the intersection of Boat Drain Road, is open for walking through at any time.  Both families said they planned to grow their Christmas displays over the years like Mason did. 

“You can’t sell something that somebody loved,” Belinda Chapman said.

About Diane Hernandez

Diane is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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