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A tree in front of Poet Biorefining near Hanlontown features approximately 14,000 white LED lights that were strung by POET employees this fall.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette

HANLONTOWN | For the past four years, POET has lit a tree in hopes of brightening the holidays of North Iowans.

And Rick Scholbrock, longtime Hanlontown mayor, said the company and its employees have “outdone themselves” this year.

“Each year that tree gets bigger and brighter,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”

The tree, which can be seen about two miles west of Interstate 35 off Highway 9 near Hanlontown, features roughly 14,000 white LED lights that were strung by POET employees this fall.

Kelly Hansen, general manager of POET Biorefining — Hanlontown, said the company, which sits on 200 acres northwest of Hanlontown, decided to put lights on one of its trees near the highway about four years ago.

“We had no intention of taking credit for it,” he said. “We simply did it as a community service around the holidays.”

The display started on a smaller tree using about 3,000 lights and has more than quadrupled on a different “very large tree” nearby. The tree is so large that POET employees use a 120-foot boom lift to string lights on its branches, Hansen said.

“It takes quite an effort for us to do,” he said, noting it’s a company effort.

The tree is lit from sunset to sunrise from late November into January, and it is seen regularly by motorists traveling on Highway 9 to and from work.

Hansen, who commutes from Mason City to the POET plant, said the lighted tree can be seen from two miles in either direction, and oftentimes — especially this year — people can be seen taking photos of the tree each evening it’s lit.

“It’s a neat landmark,” he said.

Around the same time POET began lighting a tree on its property, the company began encouraging Hanlontown residents to light their yards by sponsoring an annual holiday lights contest.

The contest was historically judged by the local garden club, but this year, Scholbrock said the Sundown Committee would be determining the first-, second- and third-place winners.

“We’re a really small town,” he said. “There isn’t a whole lot of activity in town but it’s nice to have something to look forward to.”

Scholbrock said the contest has stirred Hanlontown residents’ interest in lighting their yards, and within the past four years, the number of people participating in the contest has grown.

But he isn’t one of them.

Scholbrock, who has been the mayor for more than 20 years, said he and his best friend Paul Brunsvold used to compete against each other with their Christmas light displays, but in 1998, Brunsvold, a popular mayor and city councilman, was struck and killed by a semi-trailer while working for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

“I just kind of lost all interest,” he said.

But with POET lighting its tree, Scholbrock said it has him considering to light his yard for the first time since Brunsvold died, especially since he has grandchildren.

“I hope we have a lot of participation (in the lights contest),” he said. “Maybe we’ll get enough participation you’ll be able to see us from outer space. We’ll be the Hanlontown Griswolds.”

Hansen said the lighted tree has prompted people to regularly write thank-you notes to POET referencing the “holiday spirit” or “excitement” it has spurred over the years.

“We all want to find ways to make a difference, and this has been one of the ways that we could make a difference in people’s holidays,” he said.

Scholbrock encouraged area residents who haven’t seen the tree, or have seen it in years’ past, to make the trip before the season ends.

“It’s pretty special,” he said.

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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