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Zelienople Nativity ‘a gift’ to community

For nearly 50 years, Lancaster Township residents Barb and Les Gutzwiller have been “caretakers” of a life-size Nativity. The scene created by her grandfather, is on display near Zelienople. Steven Dalton/Special to the Eagle

HARMONY — For nearly 50 years, Lancaster Township residents Barb and Les Gutzwiller have been “caretakers” of a life-size Nativity scene near Zelienople.

“We do it in honor of my grandfather,” Barb said, “but also as a gift to the community, because we believe Christmas is an important, important event for all people.”

Nestled along Route 68, just outside Zelienople’s municipal line, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus stand surrounded by onlooking shepherds, wise men and angels.

“It tells the story of Christ’s birth,” Barb said. “God gave his only son in a virgin birth to everyone.”

But the oil-and-canvas Nativity scene tells an additional story, according to the family.

Built in the 1940s by her late grandfather, Jim Henderson, Barb said it was inspired by a paper Nativity gifted to his son, Bill.

“My uncle, Bill Henderson, said, ‘Dad, can you make this bigger?’” she said. “He took it and said, ‘Yes. Yes, I can.’”

At the time, Jim Henderson, was an employee at Robinson Ventilation — now Robinson Fans Inc. — in Harmony. Barb said the business, founded by her great-great-grandfather, James R. Robinson, has played a vital role in the history of the Nativity scene, providing the property to display it for the last 23 years.

“He painted it in his house, took it off the walls and brought it down here,” she said. “The Robinson people have always helped us because we’re part of it, and so he had them cut it, build all this and staple it on.”

The project took years to complete, according to Barb.

It was not until the 1950s, as a child, that she recalls it being displayed outside her grandfather’s former property on Zelienople’s Main Street.

“We lived right next door and I would walk up and look at it, so I have that memory” Barb said. “Then they got too old; it got to be too much trouble.”

Painted murals from the Nativity scene near Zelienople. Steven Dalton/Special to the Eagle
An ‘ideal’ location

By 1976, Barb and Les had moved to Zelienople to work at Robinson Ventilation — also taking on the responsibility of displaying her grandfather’s Nativity.

“By that December, we were displaying it at our Beaver Street house,” she said. “It was four houses up from where he lived.”

Barb said the neighbors was “excited” by the display.

“And at that time, in ‘76, we had three boys, and they had lots of friends in the neighborhood,” she said. “They all came and they got to put the sheep in and the manager and they helped.”

A year later, though, her grandfather died.

But the display remained, weathering winter after winter in his memory.

“We didn’t sell the house until December of ‘99, and the people that bought it allowed us to put it up there. They hadn’t moved in yet,” Barb said. “But then we say, ‘What are we going to do next year?”’

In 1999, the family turned again to the Robinson Fans, which agreed to store the pieces and help display them annually on its property along Route 68.

Barb called the location “ideal,” welcoming cars as they entered Zelienople along the highway.

“We usually put it up Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving,” she said.

And there it remains until after the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” Barb said, coming down each year on the Epiphany commemorating the visit of the wise men.

“I think we’ll continue to do it as long as we can,” she said.

Barb said she hoped the display shared “the reality of what Christmas is” with the community — and remained to honor her grandfather’s memory.

“He’d be amazed, probably, because he was not a man of pride,” she said. “He was very humble.”

Painted murals are displayed Thursday, Dec. 7, from the Nativity scene near Zelienople. Steven Dalton/Special to the Eagle
Painted murals are displayed Thursday, Dec. 7, from the Nativity scene near Zelienople. Steven Dalton/Special to the Eagle

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