MERRY & BRIGHT: Lynchburg’s Venita McGee creates Christmas and a positive attitude 365 days a year

MERRY & BRIGHT: Lynchburg’s Venita McGee creates Christmas and a positive attitude 365 days a year
Moore County’s Venita McGee poses between two of her handmade ornament trees in her Spankem Road home. Venita says it takes hundreds of items and dozens of hours to make each one. | A Lynchburg Times Photo

By Tabitha Evans Moore | EDITOR & PUBLISHER

FEATURES & INTERVIEWS | It’s Saturday afternoon on a farm just off Spakem Road. Rain slides down every imaginable surface creating a dull, overcast backdrop outside but inside every imaginable surface is covered in bright lights, garland, ornaments, stockings, and reindeer. It’s “decoration day” at the McGee home and two daughters, Trish and Susan, play elves as the matriarch, 81-year old Venita sits in her Christmas sweater taking it all in.

Just outside the living room, boxes of ornaments, vintage jewelry, and other baubles fill every surface of the kitchen table where Venita spends nearly 365 days a year creating handmade wreaths, Christmas trees, and stars. It’s a hobby inspired by a Christmas visit to Savannah, Georgia in 2010.

“Trish’s sister-in-law, Amy Schultz, made a similar Christmas tree for her when they lived in Savannah, Georgia,” Venita says. “It sat on the bar and just lit up the whole room. I just loved them.”

Once she returned home, she gathered the items necessary to make her first tree. Like Amy’s original creation, Venita hides items in her handmade trees, wreaths, and stars like vintage timepieces, rings, antique brooches, and toys. Each creation contains hundreds of individual pieces that Venita meticulously places one-by-one until the design feels complete. The result is a vibrant, conversation piece that oozes with holiday spirit.

Her first four creations, all Christmas trees, went to her four children: Bobby, Billy, Trish, and Susan. Today, the entire family gathers vintage ornaments, estate sale jewelry, and antique stores finds all year long for Venita’s little Christmas hobby. Trish says that friends now send her pieces that they no longer need because they know she’ll repurpose them into one of her festive creations. Venita makes the base of each tree from sugar maple trees salvaged from the farm, often after a local storm.

“Money was tight growing up. If we couldn’t afford the pretty stuff, mom would make it. She’s always been an enthusiastic recycler,” Trish says.

From Lynchburg, Tennessee to Miami Beach

After her first batch for the family, Venita decided to sell a few creations at local arts and crafts shows and now her Christmas pieces sit in homes across Tennessee and the U.S. including the Atlanta home of GlobalDoc, Inc. CEO Mike Cooper, who’s purchased Venita’s work for himself as well as friends, family members, and clients.

“I saw Miss Venita’s creations for the first time at Trish’s home in Pigeon Forge. She’d invited me to an event for the Dolly Parton Foundation. I saw it and bought the first little tree then. They are just incredible,” Cooper says.

Cooper says the unique, one-of-a-kind nature of each tree and wreath drew him in.

“Each one of them is so different and every little piece is just perfect,” he says. “Even from a distance, you can tell they are handmade. Every time I give one as a gift, the receiver is thrilled because they have something that no one else has.”

He’s even ordered custom wreath sizes from Venita to go in particular spaces in his home.

“They just blend with contemporary as well as traditional décor. They fit in so many different styles. They’re just perfect to me.”

Cooper says over the years he’s bought eight to ten pieces for himself and given away another five. He says he looks forward to unboxing them each year and Venita’s pieces have hung in both his Atlanta home and his vacation condo in Miami Beach.

Spankem Road is her spot on planet earth

Venita and her daughter, Susan, live in the New Herman community near the Moore County, Bedford County line on a portion of their family farm that originally belonged to her maternal grandfather, George Woodard. The other portion comes from her paternal family, the Fosters. Venita and her husband, Don, moved to Moore County in the 1960s. With the exception of Trish, who lives in Nashville with her husband, Paul, the McGee clan stayed close to home. Billy and his wife, Carol, and Bobby, and his wife, Janice, as well as their daughter Kayla McGee Taylor, husband Brayden, and son Mason, all live in Lynchburg.

Venita was born on this very spot in 1941 and she smiles broadly when I refer to it as her spot on planet Earth.

“I belong here. I just feel like this is God’s country. I love it here,” Venita says.

When she isn’t making Christmas creations at her kitchen table, the 81-year-old Venita still actively works their family cattle farm – though she admits that she no longer works it the way she did after her husband died in 1983. Today, she raises a garden filled with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and squash as well as an overflowing flower garden bursting with peonies, hydrangeas, and other varieties. She also helps Mason take care of his calf, Henrietta, and a flock of 24 chickens.

Trish says if it’s warm outside her mother wants to be outside. Christmas creations now get made 365 days a year and it’s one way the family encourages their matriarch to come inside out of the 100 degree summer heat.

“She’s tough and strong,” says Trish. “When I was a kid, she would work a full day at the office, then come home and work on the farm until it got dark. She cooked breakfast for six every morning and cooked dinner every night. She’s just cut from a different cloth than I am. She never complains, and is the most positive person I’ve ever known.”

Rural life is just different

Venita’s husband, Don, died in 1983 leaving the 41 year-old with four mouths to feed. After his untimely death, Venita continued to work full time at the Empire Pencil Company in Shelbyville while also trying to get a handle on the farm, which had been Don’s domain. Don also ran the Exxon gas station in Lynchburg in partnership with his cousin, Harold McGee. It sat at the corner of Craig Street and Highway 55 where the Metro Utility Department now sits.

Trish says that time in their lives showed her what her mother’s truly made of. In addition to continuing a demanding career, she dug in her heels on this plot of land she loves and made it work.

“She’ll kick down doors if she needs to and she’ll do it with a positive attitude. I think we hit the mom jackpot,” says Trish.

Both Trish and Venita say that the way the Lynchburg community wrapped their arms around the family after Don’s death was special. While Venita continued to work full time, folks from all corners of Moore County gathered to help.

“There’s a sense of community in Lynchburg and in other small towns that just doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Trish says. “I was just 15 when dad died. Susan was 11. The boys were 18 and 21. He died and this farm had to go on. Every Mennonite we knew and every neighbor we had showed up for us for weeks doing the physical work. They were baling the hay. They were feeding the livestock until my brothers and mom could get a handle on all that. You don’t find that everywhere. People came from all over and sustained us for weeks.”•

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