News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 27, 2013

High-wire act

Crews string up Courthouse lights amidst sub-freezing weather

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Getting out a ladder to string holiday lights just won’t cut it for this job. Especially not when 200 feet above the ground.

“We use about 100 feet of rope for one side and longer on the other side. Just throw the rope over, then they attach the light strands and we pull it back up here,” said Tom Sipes, an electrician for Ketner & Sons Electric Inc.

On Wednesday morning, Sipes stood inside a small copula atop the historic 19th century Vigo County Courthouse, one of five people who worked to raise eight strands of colored bulbs to decorate the courthouse for the holiday season.

Metal cable strands stretch out 125 feet long on the east and west side of the courthouse, with each containing 51 light bulbs, while the north and side sides are 150 feet long, with 10 additional bulbs, said Doug Wilkins, an electrician who stood about 100 feet below Sipes.

Wilkins and Eric Sappingfield attached the cable light strands to the rope while Justin Sipes ensured each bulb was working. At the top of the courthouse, Tom Sipes was aided by Danny Smith.

Height was not the concern. It was the temperature — 16 degrees.

“With the wind chill, it feels like 4 degrees,” Tom Sipes said. “When you climb up here, you can feel the change in the temperature, about 10 or even 20 degrees colder than it is about 100 feet down.”

As wind blasted through the openings of the copula, the faces of Tom Sipes and Smith quickly turned red. Without insulated gloves, several layers of clothes and head covering, the work could not get done. Initially the lights did not stay on, but Tom Sipes fixed the problem at a breaker box in the copula.

“I have been doing this on and off for 20 years,” he said. “They first started putting these lights up in 1956,” he said.

Ironically, Tom Sipes said he is somewhat of a “scrooge.”

“There is a little bit of pride in this, but this is a job we do every year. I am not a big Christmas person. It seems everything comes too early now,” he said. “Christmas is after Thanksgiving, not July.”

Well below Tom Sipes, Wilkins yelled out commands to pull a rope up or stop, allowing burned-out bulbs to be replaced on the strands.

On this day, 39 light bulbs were replaced — 17 green, nine blue, eight red and five yellow bulbs. “That is about average. We replace about 30 or more a year,” Wilkins said.

While it was also cold at this lower level, the weather didn’t seem to bother Wilkins.

“This ain’t too bad. We’ve had it where we would hang one or two strands, then be inside trying to warm up,” Wilkins said. “We’ve had snow that blasts in your face and lots of wind. It has been a lot colder.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or