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Mom, daughter’s miniature Christmas villages at auto dealerships

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:27AM



It all started more than 20 years ago with a tiny schoolhouse.

The holiday collectible was given to Sheila Swartzentruber as a Christmas gift by one of her students. She didn’t have any other miniature holiday buildings, so she picked up a couple of tiny houses the following year. Then, as the years went on, added more.

Swartzentruber and her mom, Mary Hennings, have amassed a collection of more than 600 buildings, and for the 10th year they’ve set up elaborate Christmas villages at Bettenhausen Automotive’s three dealerships — the Dodge-Ram and Fiat stores in Tinley Park and a Chrysler-Jeep dealership in Orland Park.

Each year, the mother-daughter duo alter the design of the display at each location, Swartzentruber said.

“There are pieces out this year that weren’t out last year,” she said. “We try to shake it up.”

They begin working on the displays shortly after Halloween, devoting long hours and working late into the night.

“We work until we absolutely can’t stand up anymore,” Swartzentruber said. “There were people standing outside the Fiat dealership at 1 or 2 in the morning watching us work.”

Swartzentruber and Hennings used to set up the Christmas villages in their homes — where they still display some of the pieces — but the idea came about to take the show on the road.

Swartzentruber said her family have been friends with the Bettenhausen family for years — she and Mike Bettenhausen, the general manager, went to grade school together.

“Back then they just had the one (dealership),” she said. “As they’ve grown and branched out, we’ve followed them.”

Bettenhausen said it was his mom, Judy, who had the idea of setting up a Christmas display, having visited Hennings at her home near Frankfort each holiday to see her collection.

Displays a big draw

Former area residents who’ve since moved away return to see the annual displays, and the villages draw people from all over the Midwest, Bettenhausen said.

“Last year, some people from Ohio who had heard about it and were (in the area for the holidays) stopped in,” he said.

Swartzentruber said she and her mom pretty much have a free hand in setting up the displays each year. This year, at the Dodge-Ram dealership, there is a simulated layer cake marking the 10th anniversary of her and her mom’s work, and the Chrysler-Jeep store has a waterfall and lake incorporated into its display.

She said that some of the pieces used in the displays are very rare and sentimental, such as a figurine of a snow skier that belonged to Swartzentruber’s great-grandmother and is more than a century old.

Bettenhausen said Swartzentruber and Hennings “put a ton of hours and effort” into the holiday villages, which lend a softer look and feel to the stores. The displays won’t be dismantled until after New Year’s Day.

“You don’t think of your traditional car dealerships to be the warmest, friendliest places to be in December,” he said.

Swartzentruber said her five children “have grown up” helping mom with the displays, “crawling under the tables and plugging all the cords in.” And once the displays are up, the work isn’t over. Each building has its own light bulb, so Swartzentruber, who lives in Manteno, “pops in a couple times a week to make sure they’re all lit.”



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