Written By Esther Baumgardner Strasser | Photography By Bruce Hari
Each Christmas we sing about the beautiful star of Bethlehem that shines in the eastern sky. We often find ourselves looking in the heavens for that star. Here in Athens, we might not find the star of Bethlehem when we look up toward the east, but we will see something shining bright overlooking our town during the Christmas season.
Up on a hill overlooking downtown is a white gingerbread house, with a turret, outlined in clear twinkling lights. Its owner, Lonzo Lamb decorates it to help ring in the holiday season for the Friendly City.
“As soon as I put these lights up, I drove downtown and looked up here. I realized that was pretty good,” says Lamb. “I always (decorated houses with Christmas lights) for my own pleasure, but when I came up here and decorated this place, people I don’t even know came to see the house. The view is just terrific, really. Now I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I like to decorate for Christmas”
This December will make nine years that Lamb has been decorating his house on the hill overlooking the downtown. However, he started decorating his home for Christmas in 1954 when he and his wife Johnnie lived on Slack Road in Athens.
“I do it for my own pleasure, but people really enjoy that I decorate the house.” He says he’s had visitors and people have written him letters thanking him.
Lamb has two brothers, Jerry Lamb and Lester Lamb, who help him put the lights up each year.
Lamb says it takes about seven to eight days to check all the lights, make sure the circuits are properly working, and check all the ladders and scaffolding, in addition to decorating his yard and placing the lights on the roof. He has seven different power supply locations as not to overload the circuits. He also has the lights plugged into a timer that is set to come on at 6 p.m. and turn off at midnight.
“We start decorating in November. We turn on the lights at Thanksgiving and turn them off the day after New Year’s Day,” he says.
Together, they put about 5,000 twinkling white lights on the outline of his roof each fall. He always puts out a “Kiddy Corner” with deer, a little train, bears, and Christmas trees. If you include all the decorations in the yard, Lamb says it adds up to about 22,000 twinkling lights. He uses clear icicles for the roof outline, and likes the look so well, he uses clear lights for everything. He says they show up really well.
“I fill the entire yard along the driveway,” he says. “We light it up pretty good normally.”
He leaves the lights up through spring before he takes them down. If Athens has any snow accumulation in the winter, Lamb turns the lights outlining the house on for the town to see.
Lamb was born in Meigs County, but moved to McMinn County in 1950 to find work. He started at Athens Utility Board digging ditches for the gas department. He worked his way up the ranks until he became the superintendent of the gas department for AUB. He retired in 1999. He also designed and built the Nativity scene AUB used as their Christmas decorations.
Working for AUB was how Lamb found out about the property overlooking downtown Athens.
“I was looking for a place to build on a hill,” Lamb says. “It was all woodland. I knew the highest point in Athens was on this hill. However, I didn’t know what I had until I cut down some of the trees, and then I knew what I had. I could see all of Athens!”
Not only can Lamb see all of Athens from his front porch, but on clear days, he can see beyond into Meigs County and to Rhea County where the Cumberland Plateau begins. In his back yard, his eastern view includes Starr Mountain and the Cherokee National Forest.
Lamb and his wife purchased the land and started building the house in 1989. Unfortunately, during that process, they discovered she had cancer. Johnnie passed away in 1995. Lamb finished the house by himself after her death. “I designed it, built it, and landscaped it,” he says. “I did most of the work on the house myself. Every chance I had, I came up here to work on it.”
The 81-year-old used to work on Woodmen of the World parade floats for the annual Athens Jimmy Liner Christmas parade. The first float he decorated won second place. He won first place for three years in the 1970s and 80s.
“I was so proud of that because it was competitive. It was real interesting we were able to do that,” he says. “I’ve always been a person who loved to decorate things. I just love to do that kind of stuff.”
Lamb invites citizens of Athens to come and see the lights up close.
“I hope everyone enjoys this as much as I enjoy getting it ready for you,” says Lamb. “I have enjoyed every minute of it and will continue to do so as long as I am able and with God’s will to provide it.”
“I appreciate folks coming up and looking at the view. I often wondered why no one built up here. I’m just blessed that I was able to do that. Once I took some of the trees down, I knew it was a unique property. I’m a very fortunate person. It’s just a pleasure to live here,” says Lonzo Lamb. “I invite folks to come up and look. I enjoy stepping out everyday and looking at Athens.”