Tarkington restaurant’s Christmas village continues to delight community

Customers at Ranch Hand Café find the Christmas village a delight as they look at all the separate pieces in the collection. Pictured is Kyle Lott, grandson of Bluebonnet News Editor Vanesa Brashier.

As if the chicken-fried steaks and homemade cream pies weren’t enough, Ranch Hand Café in Tarkington has another reason for people to visit. Every Christmas season, the restaurant features a vast Christmas village that began 30 years ago when the owners, Chris and Tara Stoneberger, were first married.

“We got married in October 1989 and for Christmas that year, my mom, Sue Jackson, gifted us with the first part of our Christmas village. It was part of a Christmas village collection that was sold by Mervin’s department store,” Tara explained. “Christmas villages were something I had always admired. From 1989 to 2004, we set up the village at our house for our family to enjoy. We had a baby grand piano and we would put the village on the piano lid.”

Over the years, the village continued to grow until the Stonebergers’ piano could no longer contain all of the pieces of the collection, so they decided to share it with their customers.

“We opened Ranch Hand in 2005, so I started sharing it that year with the community. My dad, J.R. Jackson, played a part in helping design the way it is displayed in the front room of the restaurant. Over time, it has just grown bigger and bigger. Every year I try to add new pieces, even if it’s just a truck. This year, I added two big lighted trees in the back corner,” Tara said.

When asked how many pieces are actually part of the collection, Tara couldn’t even offer an estimate. She just knows that it takes three days for four people to set up the village every year.

“When my dad died in 2013, we had decided not to put up the village. I just didn’t think I could do it without him. People in the community encouraged me to do it anyway because it’s become a community thing, not just a family thing. They said, ‘Please, Mrs. Tara, please do the village,’ so I did,” she said. “It was bittersweet doing it without my daddy but I did and I am very thankful.”

One part of the village – a rustic cabin, is a particular reminder of her father.

“It’s called Papa J’s cabin. My daddy’s name was J.R. but all the kids in the family called him Papa J. He had a rustic cabin on our deer camp. One of my favorite memories is going to the deer camp with my dad,” she said.

Another piece – a fire station – was a gift several years ago from Cleveland Firefighter Robert Meadows, who, Tara said, noticed that the village had a police department but no fire station.

“It’s been a part of the collection for a few years now, and we love it,” she said.

As Mervin’s is no longer in business, she now searches for new pieces for the collection on Ebay and a website called Department 56.

Tara said the restaurant frequently has people who stop by just to see the village.

“We have had many people come in and take photos. They might not stay to eat and we welcome that. We know they will be back,” she said with a laugh.

The Christmas village will be on display through the first week of January, so if you haven’t had an opportunity to see it, there is still time.

“I love watching the kids who come to see it. It’s such a joy to see their reactions to it,” Tara said. “I think it encourages people to get in the holiday spirit. For Chris and I, this was something cool that we collected together and it became something we did together as a family. Our children loved it and now they are bringing our grandchildren to see it.”

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