Nearly every Thursday, the early fall darkness is broken by the warm glow of lanterns set up on the table outside J-Bird’s Deli & Ales in Shelby. There is an old green, gasoline table lamp that was used in rural areas not yet reached by electricity, a limited edition Burgundy Coleman lantern, a Vietnam War era military lantern and one cobbled together from a variety of parts that span nearly 100 years.
Each week for the past five years, a group of friends gather for what they have dubbed “lantern fest,” in an attempt to ward off the cold and darkness as well as keep ancient rituals alive.
Maria Padgett, one of the members, said they begin in the fall, but it gains momentum over the winter as the daylight hours grow shorter and people gravitate toward sources of light.
They polish the lanterns, offer impromptu repairs to people who bring one to them, and answer questions from passersby.
The ritual has become synonymous with the changing of the seasons, and it attracts attention.
“That’s usually how we do it, we start one up and someone walks by,” said Rodger Perry. “‘Is that a Coleman lamp?’” they ask. ‘I have one in my basement.’”
“We hear a lot of stories from people, and memories,” said Padgett.
Recently, someone brought a relic by to see if it still worked, and they had it glowing brightly in 20 minutes.
“One of the great things about them is, it’s a good hobby. There are only a handful of different types,” said Jonathan Davis. “You can take parts from one lantern and use it on another one. A lot of parts are interchangeable. It’s satisfying because they’re easy. You can take them completely apart and clean them and put it back together and probably get it to work.”
Davis even created a custom tool for removing the valve assembly, a formerly tricky process now made easier.
Lantern fest all started with a home project. Brian and Julie Clark were renovating their kitchen, and Julie was looking for something with red accents as a decoration. They riffled through the shed out back and found a red Coleman lantern for the kitchen.
Brian decided it needed polishing and after working on it to get it cleaned up and lit, he was hooked.
“I never had lanterns before,” Brian said. “Then Julie brought in this vintage Coleman, and it was rusty. I said, let’s clean that up.”
He started collecting and cleaning up other lanterns and giving them away, and then it turned into a group gathering.
“His dad has found some very rare lanterns, and it tickles both of them,” Julie said. “It’s definitely something Brian and his dad bond over.”
She said most evenings in the winter, Brian will work on polishing a lantern while she reads a book.
“Even my parents have started getting lanterns, and they’re in Arkansas,” Padgett said.
The main core group meets weekly with other people joining at random, showing up to bring a lantern, get one working, chat and tell stories or trade parts.
Not long ago, someone saw a post on Facebook about lantern fest and reached out.
“I found this in my dad’s old chicken house and thought you might be interested,” Davis recalled. “We looked it up, and it’s a very rare, old lantern.”
Rodger Perry brought his Frankenstein lamp that Brian put together from different decades’ worth of parts.
“It’s different components from different time periods,” he said.
Davis has a military lantern that’s from the Vietnam War era.
Most of the lanterns they rehabilitate and fix are Colemans, the most prolific brand, as well as some Sears and JC Higgins.
“Coleman made so many lanterns, and they’re all so similar that when they made variations people would nerd out about it,” Brian Clark said. “For me, I just really like seeing them not go to the landfill. I’ve given a bunch of lanterns away. It has intrinsic value.”
Brian said a friend’s son was curious about the lanterns and asked what they were.
“That is an inefficient and dangerous lighting source,” he told the boy. “I gave him one, and I don’t think his father has forgiven me yet.”
He said his favorite lantern is just a plain, cheap one because he can fix it up and give it away.
“There’s something about them that’s kind of wholesome,” Brian said. “It’s hard to find fault with a lantern. I like to imagine all the camping trips and good energy stored in that lantern.”
The relics from the past even featured in the Clark’s wedding.
Julie said they had a Coleman shipped to Colorado to be used in their elopement ceremony.
The men in the group typically work on the restoration and rehabilitation while Padgett and Julie Clark are interested in creation.
Padgett’s is decorated with glitter and a pink flamingo while Julie’s lantern has flowers from her wedding bouquet.
“It took me awhile to figure out how to participate,” Padgett said.
During the colder sessions, she’ll bring a game, and she and Julie will play indoors while the others get the lanterns lit.
Many people kept old lanterns because of the nostalgia, the memories of time spent with family, and those memories are part of the lantern/’s history.
“They seem to be a beacon of really good conversation,” Padgett said. “I think there’s something really nice about the lights too. Being a part of light-making this time of year is good for the soul.”
Rebecca Sitzes can be reached at [email protected]