Thinking big: Mill lights up for Christmas

JAMES MARTIN raises a toast, and a Christmas ornament, in front of a holiday-themed display of merchandise at Sunshine Mill Winery downtown The Dalles. Housed in a historic flour mill, the large building has unique challenges when it comes time to light the exterior, Martin said.

Photo by Mark Gibson.
JAMES MARTIN raises a toast, and a Christmas ornament, in front of a holiday-themed display of merchandise at Sunshine Mill Winery downtown The Dalles. Housed in a historic flour mill, the large building has unique challenges when it comes time to light the exterior, Martin said.

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WORKING HIGH on the east side of the silos of Sunshine Mill Winery, Dan Barnhouse, right, and Bill Brace install new holiday lights and a sign Tuesday.

As many businesses in The Dalles engage in the happy challenge of decorating for the Christmas holiday — stringing lights, creating window displays, hanging snowflakes —Sunshine Mill Winery at the east end of downtown faces a unique challenge: How do you effectively decorate a massive, historic industrial monument dominating the east end of the downtown core?

“Everybody waits for us to decorate the silos,” said winery co-owner James Martin. “There is a lot of thought that goes into even the little changes we make, you have to be very careful.”

The huge mill, with its six concrete silos, towers over the east end of downtown as the only designated skyscraper in The Columbia River Gorge.

Each holiday season for the past several years, the winery has added new touches to its Christmas decor. Like last year, colored floodlights now light three sides of the mill. In addition, there is a Celtic cross outlined in lights on the west wall.

On the east side, crews are close to finishing a new holiday display: Three large figures are outlined in lights, a wine bottle, a traditional wine glass and a Copa wine cup. Within each figure is an adornment resembling a wax stamp, using shapes that advertise the winery brands but visually represent the era during which the mill operated at the turn of the century. “We hope to keep adding those adornments,” Martin added.

Care is taken to maintain the historic feel of the silos, he said. “The antiquity of it, the distressed look, is beautiful. Adding the lights, its beauty is better shared.” The colored floodlights, which have illuminated the silos during the holidays for several years, have drawn some criticism, Martin said, but “people have taken ownership of it.” He appreciates the input, he added. “Their opinions are strong, this is a monument. We see ourselves as caretakers.”

Decorating a monument isn't easy, and it isn't cheap. “It's such a big building, anything you do is big and expensive. We try to make sustainable changes,” Martin said.

The new design, although it appears simple, was very difficult to create. “It was tough to draw, it was tough to design,” Martin said, in part because the simple designs are being installed on the curving walls of each silo. “We're still trying to tweak it,” he said.

Planning for new additions to the holiday designs go on all year. “The balance between art, commercialism and history, it is a very fine line,” he said of the challenge. “What drives us is, not just making money but pursuing something that is unique, that is not like anything else in the world.

“You do it from love and passion.”

This year, the silo was lit before the holidays even began: Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, the silos were reflected in the colors of the French flag.

It was a personal thing, said Martin. “We have a partner in our Copa Di Vino brand, we are partners in the technology, people who live in France. It's just a blow to us, to see what the French people are going through. We wanted to show our support for the people of France.”

Those lights were up through the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Celtic cross occupying the west-facing wall was also inspired by a personal relationship, Martin said.

A family friend, Rt. Rev. Rustin “Rusty” Kimsey, the late Diocese of Eastern Oregon Bishop, had a collection of books on Celtic crosses, Martin explained.

“We wanted to represent his passions, and honor the Christian holiday. Kimsey died soon after the lighted cross was first installed.

“I know he saw a picture of it,” Martin said. “He was really important, really loved in this community.”

What will next year bring? Martin said they plan to do something new, something different, each year. In the meantime, residents can take home a piece of the Sunshine Mill Winery holiday spirit home for the holidays: They are selling Christmas ornaments, coffee mugs and magnets featuring the winery's logo in their tasting room at 901 East Second Street.

Like the outside walls, the inside space is decorated for Christmas as well ... and customers can take advantage of “happy hour” wine prices from 4 to 6 p.m. through all of December as they soak up the spirit of Christmas.

“It’s fun to be a part of the holiday season,” Martin said.

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