James Wilhite enjoys watching the Christmas lights go up on houses around town.
“How can you not be happy about Christmas?” he asked.
Wilhite, 58, started Wilhite Landscape & Lawn Care Ltd. in Tyler in 1982 and added Christmas Décor to the business about 15 years ago. He has 126 customers he serves with Christmas lights installation, maintenance, repair and take-down. “Virtually our customers don't even own the lights,” he said. “We do everything.”
He said the holiday service program, much like his core business, has the same philosophy — it offers customers and friends complete service. He said it's not unusual for an employee to be driving down the street and see one bulb out on a customer's house and climb on the roof to change it.
“We like to spoil our customers, and we find our best customers like to be spoiled,” he said.
Wilhite has been doing Jack King's landscaping work and installing Christmas lights at his home on South Chilton Avenue for 10 years. “He is absolutely incredible,” King said. “My passion is landscaping.”
King, 59, who owns Crown Motor Co., told Wilhite he wanted something big and beautiful hanging from a tree in his yard. It took eight men from Wilhite's crew to hang a basket, which is about 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, filled with flowers from a limb. Wilhite also searched for four months to replace one of two 25-foot palm trees that had died in King's yard.
King said he tries to do something different with his Christmas lights every year. This year there are a “zillion” lights in his trees and his palm trees are wrapped, he said. But the decoration King is most proud of isn't even in his yard. It is the Chilton Avenue and Eighth Street signs wrapped in garland and lights.
King said he just comes up with the ideas and asks Wilhite what he can do.
“A well-kept yard for me is like a piece of artwork,” King said. “But you've got to get with an artist like James to make your dreams come true.”
Many of Wilhite's customers have been using his landscaping services for years.
“Most of our customers stay with us long-term,” Wilhite said.
He recalled stopping in a local nursery in his native Fort Worth on his way home from grade school when he was 7, and buying a petunia, which his mother helped him plant. He enjoyed working with her in the garden as a child, he said.
Wilhite has a strong background in art and enjoys the ability to express art through landscape design, he said. He attended The University of Texas and Stephen F. Austin State University, where he earned a degree in horticulture. He moved to Tyler after Ran-Pro Farms saw an article about an award Wilhite won while at SFA and invited him here for a job interview.
He started Wilhite Landscape & Lawn Care, which has been at 13186 Texas Highway 64 West for the last 25 years, “as an individual with a desire,” he said. He has grown the business to 35 employees and about 600 routine customers he serves through lawn care, fertilization and weed control.
The company also offers complete landscape design build, maintenance, irrigation, exterior lighting and Christmas lighting, as well as special projects. Wilhite is past chairman of the Texas Nursery Landscape Association and is active in the state organization and local chapter.
Wilhite had been offering Christmas light decorating services on and off for years, and about 15 years ago joined the Christmas Décor Group, an international franchise. He said it is an odd marriage because Wilhite Landscape & Lawn Care is an individually owned business, but he pulled in the Christmas Décor franchise for that service.
Landscaping can be seasonal, and adding the holiday service allows him to keep his employees busy without having to cut their hours or lay anyone off during the slow time of year. Wilhite said his teams seem to enjoy it because it gives them something different to do for a month out of the year.
While most customers ask Wilhite to design their light display, he will also work with them to accomplish their own design. He said some families have special traditions, such as hanging a wreath or garland or placing the lights along the roof line or in the shrubs.
Mrs. Abell, 33, said together, she and Wilhite came up with a design to decorate her home for Christmas. Wilhite's design kept with the traditional style of the home, an older red brick house on West Eighth Street. She said she wanted colored lights to make it more fun for her children, Frank 4, and Ruby, 2. Smaller lights were placed in the trees and shrubs, larger blue lights line the house, wreaths hang from the windows and garland is strewn along the balcony.
“The scale is just perfect,” she said of the lights, adding that it is festive but not overdone.
Wilhite estimated his crews put out more than 150,000 lights since November.
He said one of the Christmas Décor trademarks is their tree lighting. He pointed out a tree on Copeland Road that is strewn with lights to look like a Weeping Willow. People stop their cars to look at the tree, which has lights that go up 50 feet, he said. Wilhite crews also decorated a pair of oak trees by East Texas Medical Center, as well as three large trees in the hospital's parking lot plaza.
“In person, they're just awe-inspiring,” he said.
Wilhite said they focus on providing exterior installation but will do some interior decorations. They have customers as far as Nacogdoches, Henderson, Athens and Mineola.
“The real talent is our team,” Wilhite said, adding that his three teams work every day for a month to put out lights that are perfectly spaced and edged. He said his employees map each design so they put the lights back exactly how the customer had it the year before unless they request a change.
Wilhite constructed an 800-square-foot warehouse to keep his lights 11 months out of the year. “It's surprising how full it gets,” he said.