Family tradition turns residents’ home into ‘the airplane house’

People put Christmas lights on trees, shrubs, houses, barns, and even fences to spread holiday cheer.

The Cawthra family puts lights on a vintage airplane, and people have noticed.

“Everyone knows the airplane house,” Nora Cawthra said.

The tradition started in their Shelton Avenue front yard in 2006, but has been discontinued for the past few years. “Where’s the plane? Where’s the plane?” people would ask Cawthra and her husband, Dean.

So this year the lighted airplane is back, and the unusual nighttime sight may be slowing down  traffic a bit as drivers pass by their property near Huntington Center.

The plane is a 1940s single-engine Stinson, and a friend originally brought it to the Cawthras so Dean could work on it. The friend, now deceased, then gave them the plane.

“It was sitting in the backyard and I told Dean, ‘So help me God, I’m putting it in the front yard with lights,’” Cawthra said.

And then she did just that. The result was an instant holiday hit with family, neighbors and passing motorists. “The more I saw it, the more I thought, this is kind of cool,” she said.

”It’s different and it’s pretty neat,” Dean said.

Previously, Nora Cawthra had put up a lighted display with Snoopy, the Red Baron and a doghouse in her family’s front yard for the holidays.

This year’s airplane is decorated with red, white and blue lights to honor American troops. Cawthra noted that many Stinson planes were used in the military, especially during World War II.

The Cawthras don’t know the specific history of their plane, which they believe was manufactured in 1947, a few years after World War II ended. They’ve never flown in the plane, which appears to need considerable work, and it’s uncertain when it was last in the air.

Stinson Aircraft made planes from the 1920s to the 1950s for the commercial and military markets. The company was founded by a famous stunt pilot. Actor James Stewart and wealthy businessman and aviator Howard Hughes owned Stinson planes.

The Cawthras have decorated their plane in different ways through the years, including in just white lights with only the propeller in red lights. “We change it up,” Cawthra said of their design approach.

As a tradition, they invite friends over for chili and drinks on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend to get the plane ready for the holiday season. “We all push it to the front yard,” Cawthra said.

They live in a 200-year-old farmhouse that’s been in Dean’s family for that long. It once was a working farm with chickens and horses, and they still keep a few animals on the property.

They usually turn on the holiday lights around 3:30 p.m., a little before dusk, so children on elementary school buses can see the illuminated airplane as they go by.

Granddaughters Bri, 10, and Veronica, 8, love the unique display and get compliments from friends and their families at school, karate lessons and elsewhere.

“It’s pretty well known in Shelton,” said Nora, a retired dental hygienist. Dean is the city’s parks and recreation supervisor and tree warden, and also owns a construction company.