For homeowners taking down Christmas lights, longtime Festival of Lights volunteer Jack Reilly has a piece of advice: How you tear stuff down determines how easy it is to put back up.

“Tear down is about set up next year,” Reilly said.

Reilly would know. For the past 20 years, he has overseen the setup and takedown of more than 500,000 lights and over 90 animated displays.

Some of the displays when they are taken apart end up with 15 pieces, such as the space ship display.

“It’s literally a jigsaw puzzle,” Reilly said.

When Reilly first started volunteering, people took down the displays and set them on the floor of the barn where they are stored in the offseason. The next year, Reilly had to crawl over all of the displays stacked on the floor.

After that experience, the former electrician started to organize the takedown when he was put in charge of setup and tear down. He set up bays in the board so that each display has its own storage area, and he rolls up 300 electrical cables on wooden spools so they unroll right the next year.

“If you don’t pack them right, it becomes a mess the next year,” Reilly said.

But in addition to organization, Reilly has a secret weapon for taking down the holiday light display: Jail inmate work crews.

Douglas County inmate work crews help take down the lights, Reilly said.

“To us, it’s a godsend. It’s one of the reasons we can do this, because of the free labor,” Reilly said. He works with another volunteer Mike Zuelzke.

Oregon state law that applies to control of prisoners allows festival organizers to use inmate crews, said Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brad O’Dell.

State law allows the county sheriff to “cause” prisoners to engage in any work that is otherwise authorized by law, in places and times, and in a manner directed by courts or county boards of supervisors.

There is no compensation to either the county or to inmates, O’Dell said.

The Festival of Lights display is set up in River Forks Park.

For Reilly, downside is that he has to train a new crew every year. If nothing else, inmates get great experience in taking and following instructions, because Reilly is quite particular about doing things his way.

“I’m not easy to work for. It’s my way or the highway,” Reilly said.

He doesn’t like inmates “freelancing” on the assignments because if the displays are a mess, he is the one who would have to straighten them out.

“Everything we do out here is for a certain reason,” Reilly said.

For inmates, there are perks for the work assignment every Thursday when Reilly serves coffee and donuts.

When tear down is completed in six weeks, Reilly can relax for a time, until he has to put it back up.

The annual Festival of Lights holiday fundraising event draws 25,000 visitors per year, and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for Rotary Club scholarships and service projects.

Entrance receipts for 2017 of $62,000 were up from the previous year’s $50,000, and receipts for the event’s wagon ride and holiday village fundraisers were more than double last year’s, according to Festival of Lights Committee Chairman Kerwin Doughton.

John Dickey can be reached at or 541-957-4204.

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City Government and Business reporter

John Dickey is a city government and business reporter for The News-Review.

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