More than 25 years ago, Roy and Deborah Thompson began a family tradition that has reshaped holiday traditions in Bulloch County and the surrounding area.
TMT Farms — named for the Thompsons and their family, including daughter Jennifer McCranie and her husband Jeff, and son Tyler and his wife Chrisee — has become a must-see stop for families during the holidays. The farm, located on Old River Road, is the home of an ever-expanding holiday display, filled with acres of lights, inflatables, antique vehicles, tractors and farm equipment, wagons, and so much more. There’s even a replica of a western town, along with Bulloch County landmarks from the past.
The original idea for the display came from the Thompsons’ desire to accept donations of non-perishable food items from visitors, to help restock local food pantries. The annual event has grown into one of the largest Christmas light displays and food drives in the South, drawing visitors from throughout the area and from neighboring states.
Last year’s event produced more than 65,000 pounds of food, and three trailers full of pet food and supplies. Thousands of cars drove through.
The entire Thompson clan works for months to get the display ready, which opened on Thanksgiving night and runs through December 27. The display opens each night at dark, and closes at 1 a.m. Maintaining the displays and preparing for the holiday season is a year-round job, but one that Roy Thompson feels is truly worth the effort.
“It is well worth it to see the good it does and for people to enjoy it,” he said.
Deborah Thompson says that they couldn’t do what they do at TMT Farms without the volunteers. All sorts of groups, from Sunday School classes to biker clubs, come out to the farm to help during the season. One of those groups is the NeSmith and Fennell families.
Keely NeSmith Fennell and her family, including her father, Donald NeSmith and late mother, Cathy NeSmith, brother Kyle, and Fennell’s children, began helping out at TMT Farms more than a decade ago. The two families had been friends for quite some time, and had met because of their family businesses. The NeSmith family is in the construction business, and met the Thompsons through their business at Statesboro Floor Covering.
“The good thing about folks in construction is that we all kind of look after each other and we all kind of help each other,” Fennell said, adding that the two families have helped each other with various projects over the years. But she and her family noticed early on that TMT Farms Christmas Light Drive-Thru was “going to be successful.”
“We noticed that there was a need. The Thompsons are so generous in what they do for our community. They wanted to collect food and pet products, and those kind of toys, and people were kind enough to leave them. But there was really nobody there in the evenings to organize, and get things kind of straight and orderly,” she said.
So in a casual conversation with her family, Fennell mentioned that it would be good for them to go and assist. In the beginning, they went a couple of nights a week. She says that others took note of them helping, and they began to express the desire to help as well, including people from her own friend group.
“I think it’s a really exciting time now because I think people really enjoy giving to others and being able to assist. We should do it every day of the year, but I think at Christmas, we find that people are willing to do those kinds of things,” she said.
So it began with her “little family of four,” Fennell said, but now there are spouses and grandchildren helping, and her dad still comes to watch the fun. These days, the family goes out at the beginning of the season, and again toward the end.
“We’ve been out there in rain, sleet, 150 degrees. The weather is unpredictable. But we enjoy it regardless of if it’s raining, hot or muddy, or whatever. It’s still a fun time to be out there with each other. And to see all those smiling faces,” she said. “It’s something that we over the years have continued to enjoy doing together. We look forward to it. We prepare crab stew, and we go out and we snack and we enjoy each other, and we enjoy the people who visit.”
Fennell says each year is special because they get to see lots of friends.
“We see lots of people that we don’t normally see. And it’s fun to see the twinkle in the eye of that 3-year-old or that 5-year-old who is coming to see the lights for the first time. So we enjoy giving back to the community,” she said, adding that what her family does is “just a small snippet of what TMT Farms does each holiday season.”
“The Thompsons take the brunt of the work, because they plan this a year in advance. And people could say you don’t see this, but no, the Thompsons do this year-round. They do the installation for six months, but there’s a lot of prep work, a lot of materials that have be done to get it ready for what you see out there now,” she said.
Fennell has enjoyed watching the numbers of groups volunteering at TMT grow over the years.
“It’s just more people who want to enjoy the Christmas spirit, but also, be the hands and feet of Jesus, which is what we all need to be doing for others,” she said.
Fennell and her family don their Santa hats and blinking Christmas necklaces, and work to keep track of donations. They organize the food donations, as well as pet products and toys.
“Our community and the communities around us are so generous, and they do so much for the food bank in our particular community, but you get all kinds of food donations,” she said. “There are prepared barrels in the drop-off location, so we take the cans and we put them in the different barrels, and we take the boxed goods like cereal and oatmeal, and we put them in another barrel.”
A lot of people want to make monetary donations, Fennell said, and although the Thompsons don’t accept money for themselves or for the Christmas event, they are often aware of needs in the community, so cash donations are accepted and given directly to those in need.
Fennell says that most people never even consider the economic impact that TMT Farms Christmas Light Drive-Thru has.
“People come from all over. They come and they make it a day. They will come and they’ll shop in our shops, they buy gas here, and they may have even come from so far that they want to spend the night, so there’s lodging here, in addition to the fact that they want to go out to eat,” she said. “They shop, they dine and they stay, right here in our community. People think you just come and drive through and go home, but there’s a lot more involved.”
The event also impacts local residents by giving them a family-friendly destination right here in our own backyard.
“It helps bring families back to basics and to experience core values,” Fennell said.
For Fennell and her family, the experience of helping each year at TMT Farms has been a blessing.
“It is something that we look forward to. You would think that because we work together, that we see each other all the time, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she said. “This is one thing that we take time to come together to share. It’s just a great opportunity for us to give back to our community that has given us so much.”
As for herself, Fennell says she loves being able to share her faith as she serves others.
“The older I get, I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily stuff that’s important, but it’s experiences,” she said. “And the experiences that I have with my family are No. 1.”
TMT Farms is located at 16710 Old River Road North. You can find more information on TMT Farms’ Facebook page by searching “TMT Farm Christmas Lights Drive-Thru.” Admission is free, and donations of non-perishable foods, pet food and new unwrapped toys are accepted. Monetary donations are not required, but welcome.