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A tradition continues, with 1,200 feet of lights
Drivers on Cemetery Road are once again hitting their brakes for a deer. For the 16th year, brothers William and Harold Mann have strung 1,200 feet of Christmas lights around their now-iconic John Deere Pond, triggering chuckles and bringing holiday cheer to passersby who have seen the pond for years, as well as those newly discovering the Vashon treasure.
Though the Seattle media has thoroughly covered the Mann brothers’ deer-shaped pond since its creation two decades ago and its lighting half a dozen years later, Billy Hoolahan, Harold Mann’s son-in-law, says the magic lives on for Islanders.
Vashon residents still begin asking in October when the pond will be lit, he said. They slow their cars to catch glimpses while driving by and frequently bring their children and grandchildren to witness the small-town spectacle.
“People really enjoy it,” Hoolahan said. “It’s so pretty.”
Now 80 and 83, William and Harold Mann, who have lived on Cemetery Road since the 1930s, haven’t given up working on their beloved John Deere farm equipment. But they have let Hoolahan take over the pond’s maintenance and lighting — a tradition he carries on with pride and enthusiasm.
Last week, Hoolahan stood at the edge of the pond and explained how stringing the lights around the 150-foot-long deer, antlers and all, is a two-day job. This year Hoolahan, a school bus mechanic for the Vashon Island School District, brought the pond into the 21st century by replacing all the lights with new, LED ones.
“It’s a lot brighter now,” he said. “And it uses about a third of the electricity.”
Over the past few years, Hoolahan — who lives in another house on the property with his wife Petra Mann — has also given the deer a white tail and a green antlers and made the nose a bit brighter, just to update the display a little, he said.
“It has evolved. But it’s going to stay where it’s at now, unless I can figure out a way to push a button and make it pop out of the ground,” he said with a laugh.
William Mann, who was working nearby, said that for the first couple years he and Harold lit the pond, not many people beyond Vashon knew about it. Then one winter a KOMO news helicopter was returning from an accident on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge when the pilot caught sight of the glowing deer below. KOMO soon broadcast a story on the pond, and the media frenzy that followed included segments on several other Seattle news stations as well as a photo on the front page of The Seattle Times.
Hoolahan didn’t tend to the pond at the time of the media hoopla, but he said he has fond memories of news stations seemingly rediscovering the pond each winter and reporters trudging down to the water at night in high heels. One year a news crew even got its van stuck in the mud after driving a little too close to the pond.
“We had to bring a John Deere tractor to pull it out,” Hoolahan quipped.
After the story was picked up by national news stations, the pond caught the attention of the John Deere company itself. Company officials asked to feature the pond in their magazine, which was distributed internationally. The brothers, who never bragged about their unique creation but took the media attention in stride, agreed.
“I said, ‘It’s your deer,’” William recalled with a grin.
Will Gerrior, who lives near the Manns and was a commercial pilot when they built the pond, recalls how he was shocked when, during a layover in Atlanta one winter, he saw the Vashon pond on the national news. He immediately called his wife and found out the new display was next door to his home.
“I said, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that was going on,’” he said.
Now it seems as if few on the Island haven’t at least heard of the pond created by Vashon’s own John Deere fanatics. But what many don’t realize, Hoolahan said, is that the pond, affectionately called “Big John” by the Manns, is as much a demonstration of the brothers’ resourcefulness as it is their love of tractors.
For years the Mann brothers — who have hayed and cleared brush on local farms for decades in addition to raising dairy cows on their shared property — wished to find a way to use a downhill portion of their land near Judd Creek that turned into a swampy marsh during the wet months.
Finally in 1989 William — who Hoolahan describes as the quieter of the two brothers — decided the wetland was the perfect spot for a pond.
“He was trying to figure out what to do with the muck,” Hoolahan said.
William created a giant grid with string and, in the dead of winter, meticulously plotted the outline of John Deere’s classic logo. Determined to work even after the weather turned on him, and after having already lost two pairs of boots to the endeavor, he laid the final cinderblocks of the pond’s outline wearing snowshoe-like contraptions he created to prevent his feet from sinking in the mud.
“He slapped some plywood to his boots, and he had mud boots,” Hoolahan said, laughing at the memory.
Hoolahan and his wife still argue about who gave Harold Mann the idea to give the pond a holiday touch. In 1995 one of them mentioned that the Manns should add a red nose to the deer. Harold, who Hoolahan called outgoing and creative, took the idea and ran with it.
“Next thing I know Harold had made 1,200 little hangers for lights,” he said.
Neighbors immediately took to the Christmas pond, and some even donated cash for the electric bill, though Hoolahan said the Manns have never revealed how much they pay to keep the deer lit each year.
“(William is) very tight-lipped about that,” he said.
The brothers still enjoy a perfect view of the pond from their shop, which is perched on a hill near their home and now surrounded by more than a dozen old as well as working John Deere tractors.
The two have become known to their neighbors, and Hoolahan said it doesn’t look as though they’ll give up riding their John Deeres anytime soon.
“They’re still working,” Hoolahan said. “Their father didn’t retire until he was 90.”
Meanwhile, Hoolahan is pleased he can help out on the family farm by carrying on a much-loved holiday treat.
“It’s a tradition,” he said. “I’ll pick up the baton and carry it on.”