By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Shore Acres is the place to be

You love Christmas, but — after taking down the tree, boxing ornaments, storing numerous strings of lights — you grudgingly admit you’re now glad Christmas is over. Be glad, then, that you are not part of Shore Acres Community, where 1,500 volunteers spend six weeks putting up their 300,000 Christmas lights.

Welcome to Holiday Lights at Shore Acres State Park, near Coos Bay/North Bend.

Now, a busload of McMinnvillans have come to see for ourselves this light extravaganza.

Our bus turns onto Cape Arago Highway and deposits us at a light show that last year was attended by 49,000 spectators from 28 countries — Argentina to Yemen. The community project started in 1987 when Friends of Shore Acres Inc. decided to “string up a few lights” to help celebrate the holidays. During its 27 years, it has grown every year, and some now describe it as the “Winter Wonderland of the World.”

We are lucky. It is a crisp, clear December evening. No precipitation is forecast.

We pile from the bus, and each heads a different way, intent on seeing the 30 decorated Christmas trees, each of the dozens of light sculptures, the formal gardens.

It is almost dark now — the better to see the lights — and the paths provide an even walking surface, with no tree roots to stumble over. Landscape lighting in the adjacent giant evergreens provides additional visibility if the light sculptures do not clearly illuminate our way.

I wander the pathways, stopping to ogle each structure — and each seems to surpass the preceding.

In a nearby tall tree, I see a large fluttering butterfly created from lights. The animated bumblebees are a delight. Across the way, I see a light in a lighthouse and “Western Shore,” a life-size boat created from lights, at the ready to sail. A hummingbird, extracting nectar from a fuchsia, is a darling. Bird lovers will love, too, the life-size pelicans, herons, cranes and whimsical puffins.

I spot a frog made of lights, leaping across a pond. Nearby are orcas, and spouting gray whales. Now, salmon schooling — all done by lights. Dragonflies flit here and there. Christmas mushrooms seem to grow with abandon. The undersea garden is a bouquet of gorgeously colored urchins, sea stars, anemones, seahorses, kelp, octopus, crab and jellyfish. Lighting, too, creates red snappers, turtles, seagulls, even ducks and a boat.

Likewise, little creatures are included in this light show: squirrels, grasshoppers, snails, worms. Flower lovers will enjoy the creative blooms, such as the rhodie with outer petals made of medium-size bulbs and tiny little ones to craft the center.

Here tonight, the paths are crowded with picture- takers. I hope to get a picture of everything but I wonder if any will turn out. Surprisingly, many did.

I walk down the pathways that continue on and on. I wander past the pergolas, the perfectly manicured formal gardens, and the countless Christmas light creations, then my hands begin to chill and I am tired. I head for the garden house, and hot cider and cookies. It emanates warmth and friendliness. Now, on to the information and gift center where our group meets for the bus ride back toward Coos Bay, and to our motel.

Many visitors return each year to see the Christmas lights.

Others prefer the summer spectacles at Shore Acres where, from May to September, thousands of annuals and perennials are abloom. Mother’s Day is Rhododendron Sunday, when the hundreds of rhodies and azaleas draw admiring visitors.

Father’s Day is Rose Sunday, when 500 rosebushes are the featured attraction. A garden concert is held in July. Bonsai Day is in March. Hundreds of daffodils and other bulbs herald the coming of spring. The blooms of 5,000 tulips will steal the show late March to April.

And for the start of all this, Oregonians can pretty much thank Louis J. Simpson, pioneer lumberman and shipbuilder. In 1905, he bought Shore Acres Estate — Sunset Bay to Cape Arago — for $4,000. For Christmas 1907, he built for his wife, Cassie, a mansion on the ocean cliff, with a heated indoor swimming pool, large ballroom, carriage house/barn complex, gardener’s cottage, dairy farm with prize Holsteins. Grounds included pergolas, greenhouses, formal gardens, a Japanese garden with a 100-foot pond — and exotic deciduous and evergreen perennials, shrubs and trees from around the world, brought back by Simpson sailing vessels. A later addition to the mansion included a Roman bath and a 26-by52-foot swimming pool that used both salt and fresh water.

In 1921, after a long illness, Cassie Simpson died, and in July that year, the mansion burned.

Louis remarried and in 1927 he and his second wife, Lela, moved into an even larger, two-story, 224-foot long mansion.

In 1932, Louis and Lela gave the Cape Arago portion of their estate to the State of Oregon. Then came the Depression and financial losses. Both home and grounds fell into considerable disrepair. In 1942, the Simpsons moved to Barview and sold the rest of Shore Acres to the state for a public park.

During World War II, the U.S. Army occupied the mansion, using it as barracks and officers’ club. In 1948 that home was razed because of much needed repairs, Louis died at his Barview home in 1949, and in 1974-75, Oregon State Parks initiated rehabilitation of Shore Acres. Friends of Shore Acres was formed in December, 1986, and staged the first Holiday Lights in 1987.

If you have not yet visited Shore Acres — whether for the lights or the summer spectacles — surely your 2014 calender can include a trip to this outstanding landmark. Sunset on the Pacific at Sunset Bay State Park will forever be remembered — and overnight camping is permitted at this park. To the south, Cape Arago State Park has picnic tables, tide pools, hiking trails — and all three parks are connected by a segment of the Oregon Coast Trail. Here at Cape Arago one summer, Homer and I saw an unforgettable three-ring marine show staged by the offshore whales.

True, you may have trouble deciding whether to come to Shore Acres for the holiday lights, or the summer garden displays. Those visitors who know Shore Acres would suggest that you, perhaps, do both.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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