candy cane lane

Merry holiday lights on display by the residents of Candy Cane Lane in West Allis.

 
Photo: Raymond Jacquette

Candy Cane Lane — the West Allis neighborhood known for decking out its homes in bombastic, brightly colored lights each December — may be one of the Milwaukee area’s best Christmas tales. 

And the 12-city-block residential area retells that story each year, always with the same happy ending of the suffering cared for and the hungry fed.

As with other stories, Candy Cane Lane’s saga began with a serious challenge, in this case a young man suffering from a fatal disease, according to Patricia Wolfe, a 45-year neighborhood resident and official spokeswoman for the holiday effort.

“In 1984, my next-door neighbor’s son Jeremy was diagnosed with brain cancer,” says Wolfe, whose corner house serves as the hub of the annual initiative. “We had always decorated with lights and treated the holidays as a sort of block party. When we heard about Jeremy, things got more serious.”

The families — living in the neighborhood bordered by Montana Avenue on the north, Oklahoma Avenue on the south, 92nd Street on the east and 96th Street on the west — decorate their homes with colorful lights and tableaus.

Milwaukee Children’s Hospital was the intended recipient of contributions from Candy Cane Lane the first year. A neighbor, in light of Jeremy’s plight, suggested the funds be donated to Milwaukee Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, also known as the MACC Fund.

A route was charted through the neighborhood for motorists and walkers who wanted to enjoy the lights. At the end of the route, neighborhood volunteers collected whatever the visitors wanted to contribute, with the proceeds going to the MACC Fund — and what came to be known as Candy Cane Lane has never looked back.

“We get everything from pocket change to $20 bills,” Wolfe says. “We also get lots of Chuck E. Cheese coupons, nuts and bolts, and just about everything you can imagine.” 

One year a woman accidentally contributed her wedding ring, which was sitting in a change cup in her car that she emptied into a volunteer’s canister, Wolfe says. The next day she reappeared with a look of desperation on her face and retrieved the ring.

Wolfe estimates that during the neighborhood’s season, which this year runs through Dec. 26, roughly 10,000 to 15,000 people come through to visit the neighborhood and see the lights. The eight volunteers who collect the donations each night also hand out candy supplied by the MACC Fund, courtesy of donations from candy companies and food distributors.

“Last Dec. 23 and 24 we handed out more than 1,000 candy canes,” she says.

Significant contributions

Over 32 years, Candy Cane Lane’s contributions have added up, according to the MACC Fund’s Colleen O’Neil Moran, who’s been the charity’s chief liaison with the group for almost a quarter-century.

“For the past few years we’ve had pretty mild weather, which brings a lot more people out,” O’Neil Moran says. “Contributions have totaled about $100,000 per year, with a total MACC Fund contribution of $2.1 million since the start of the program.”

Candy Cane Lane’s contribution is the charity’s third largest each year after the Trek 100-Ride for Hope, which originates at Trek Bicycle headquarters in Waterloo, and Christopher’s Shoot, a clay-shooting event held at the Waukesha Gun Club, O’Neil Moran says.

Volunteers also collect between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of nonperishable food items for Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force each year, Wolfe says.

Currently, 300 neighborhood families participate in the decorations, with countless more dressing as Santa Claus and other characters or collecting contributions at the end of the route. Those volunteers aren’t limited to neighborhood residents.

“I have volunteered for several years with DJs Murph and Meg from 95.7 FM,” says West Allis Mayor Dan Devine. “Candy Cane Lane embodies the holiday spirit in many ways and has become an annual tradition for many people, not just in West Allis but throughout the region.”

Other celebrity volunteers include local TV personalities, members of the West Allis Fire Department and costumed mascots from various area sports teams.

One season even saw a marriage proposal, Wolfe says, with the intended groom posting a large sign saying, “Will you marry me?” in holiday lights. His bride-to-be didn’t even notice until the young man got down on one knee, and she was so shaken that she just nodded her head yes.

“And after all that no one even thought to take a photo,” Wolfe notes.

Setting a new goal

In general, walkers contribute more than motorists, Wolfe says. The neighborhood hopes to beat last year’s contribution and set the 2017 goal at $105,000, of which over $17,500 had been raised as of Dec. 13.

Each year the decorations get more extravagant and a new generation of neighbors has taken design concepts in directions the veterans had never thought of, Wolfe says.

In 32 years, none of the participating households have never asked for a reimbursement for electrical costs, O’Neil Moran says, and none of the donors have ever asked for a receipt.

When it comes right down to it, Candy Cane Lane has become a labor of love for the hundreds of volunteer households and celebrity participants. And the community effort shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

“This means a job well done to me,” Wolfe explains. “You get a happy heart because it feels like you really did something worthwhile for the whole year.”

And the young man who started it all? Jeremy currently lives with his brother, a testament to Candy Cane Lane’s Christmas spirit.

 
 
 

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