Legendary figure remembered
Benjamin Louis Salmon is a popular, almost legendary figure in the Vandalia area. Everyone seems to know who he was. A local man buying gas, the waitress at the Country Cupboard restaurant, shoppers at an antique shop in the downtown area, are all smiles as they share memories of “Mr. Ben.”
They remember his artistic creations, his floats in local parades, but they especially recall his Christmas displays which continue. These, they say, are what visitors should see; a “must see” they say.
Their advice is simple. Their invitations are sincere. Go and see the combinations of wood, lights, and small motors that seem to become almost magical as the twilight fades into darkness of a cold December night. Go and see the displays that even today, seven years after his passing in 2006, draw visitors.
The Ben Salmon Christmas Nativity Display sits at the Vandalia Area Fairgrounds and is open to the public Wednesday-Sunday evenings from 5-9 p.m. from Thanksgiving through New Years. There is no cost for those wanting to visit but donations to help defray costs are appreciated and welcome.
Visitors to the display can easily enjoy the view from the warmth of their cars. They can also tune their radios to a specific frequency to hear holiday music to accompany their viewing.
Local Vandalia resident Larry Nation is the caretaker of the event. He asked for the position four years ago after the display was not set up one holiday season. “It just felt like something was missing,” he said. “This is an important part of our community.” He was able to gain the support of the local Fair Board and was given permission to set up the display in its current location.
Larry’s wife, Nancy, explained why the event does not charge admission. “We don’t charge admission because Mr. Ben never did,” said Nancy. “We hope that everyone will come and see what he spent so much time creating.”
A sign painter by trade, Salmon created his first Christmas display in 1936. Crafted mainly from wood and cardboard, the display depicted a Santa Claus house with elves placed on Salmon’s front porch with Santa’s sleigh and reindeer on his rooftop.
As the years passed, Salmon added small motors to mechanize his creations and the displays grew larger. By 1975, Salmon’s displays stretched over four lots. People from all over flocked to see the yearly spectacle.
“As a kid, I can recall hearing that people came from all over to see the displays,” said Larry Nation. “People drove in from Illinois just to see what he had built.”
After Salmon’s passing in 2006 at the age of 92, local residents sought to pay homage to their local legend by keeping up the tradition of setting up the displays during the holiday season.
Repairs to the displays have been necessary over the years and the organizers try to preserve and restore whenever possible.