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From a candy-covered rendition of a Russian Orthodox cathedral to the scene of a fierce ninja battle where a gingerbread zombie got a pretzel stake through his heart, there were no limits to the imagination of Cowlitz County's bakers in Saturday's Gingerbread Haus contest.

Judge David Diffendorfer, who creates a gingerbread village every year for Portland's Benson Hotel, was staggered at the challenge of choosing winners.

"This is not going to be easy," he said several times while examining the 37 entries on the second floor of the Merk in downtown Longview. "I'm going to make some friends and some enemies in Longview, I imagine."

Contestants competed in four categories: Heartwarming Houses, Original Structures, Local Landmarks and Youthful Entries (ages 13 and younger).

Every entry had its admirers.

"Choo choo!" shouted a small child upon seeing a steam train with cotton candy smoke, running on licorice tracks, made by 6-year-old Brooklynn James. The train and Jan Ferguson's "Red Tree Farm" - which featured a cow, horse and a pair of goats — were popular favorites with children.

Retired teacher Nancy Cudworth of Rainier liked "The Staff of Life," a bread oven surrounded by miniature loaves of bread, made by Alissa Lee.

"This one draws me," Cudworth said. "It's different."

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, which took Emilee Moore and her mother Vickie Roberson 70 hours to make, was one of the most spectacular and colorful entries.

Some bakers went for realistic, some for whimsical and some for both at once.

Gail Wells crafted a two-story birdhouse. The top floor had candy eggs in a shredded-wheat nest. Below were Christmas presents fit for a candy bird: gift-wrapped gummy worms.

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Tom and Linda Stiltz made a tiny store, "Stiltz Market," with look-alike gingerbread versions of themselves standing outside.

City Councilmembers Ken Botero, Mary Jane Melink, Dennis Weber and Don Jensen — plus "hired consultant" Jeff Jolly — created a carefully wrought replica of Jolly's turreted French Tudor brick and stucco home on the Old West Side.

"You know this was red-tagged yesterday," Chamber of Commerce President Rick Winsman quipped to Jensen. "It didn't pass electrical."

"It's got a building permit!" Jensen protested. And sure enough, in a corner of the kitchen window was a tiny yellow building permit that Jolly added after former county commissioner Joan LeMieux admonished him to get one.

When Lemieux saw it Saturday, she crowed, "He did it, he did it!"

Sasha Hinners, who entered a house for a City of Longview team, coordinates the city's wellness program. Her co-workers challenged her to build a "healthy" gingerbread house. She fashioned it as much as possible from non-sugar ingredients: instead of candies she used beans and lentils, bran fiber, unsweetened coconut, fruit leather, pretzels and granola bars.

While some house builders were experienced, such as Wells, others were exploring it for the first time.

"This is my first gingerbread house that I ever made," 8-year-old Erika Eklund said. "I melted Jolly Ranchers for the windows."

When the dough for her furniture was too stiff to mold, she carved it into a couch, chair, table, bookshelf and bench.

"(The furniture) was a failure that she turned into a positive," said Erika's grandmother, Kim Bohannon of Longview. "This has been just wonderful for her. I have never seen her shine like she has been with this."

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