Skating in the park, downtown shopping and more: Memories of Christmases past
The sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays are some of our most special memories. This is certainly the case for some longtime Elgin area residents when it comes to remembering the holiday seasons of the 1950s and 1960s.
It was a time when Elgin was one-third of its present size and seeing a neighbor or friend as you went about your daily business was a commonplace event. It was a time when locally owned department stores such as Ackemann's and Spiess dominated the downtown, and ice skating at Lords Park provided a Norman Rockwell-type scene.
Here are some cherished memories from a few Elgin residents. Readers who grew up elsewhere will certainly have similar special memories of their own.
A living nativity scene at Elgin State Hospital -- now the Elgin Mental Health Center -- was a popular attraction for years.
- Courtesy of Elgin History Museum
Nativity Scene at Elgin State Hospital
"One annual event, fondly remembered by area residents of a certain age, was the live Nativity scene at Elgin State Hospital, now known as the Elgin Mental Health Center. The hospital was quite a different place back then than it is today. Beginning in the 1930s and lasting into the 1960s, the hospital's holiday celebrations included erecting a temporary shed, open on one side, large enough to enclose several people and live animals. Patients, assisted by the hospital carpenters, set up this attraction. Several of the featured animals were from the hospital farm, or on loan from nearby farms. Costumed mannequins were also used to portray both animals and humans. At certain times of the day, patients and staff portrayed the people. The Nativity scene most people remember was conveniently located along the hospital's Central Road running between the north and south gates. Streams of cars passed along the well-manicured grounds before stopping briefly to enjoy the sight."
-- Bill Briska
Greg Schneider sits on the lap of Santa at the Spiess department store in Elgin.
- Courtesy of Greg Schneider
'Good boys' see Santa
"My memories of holidays and December from my early days take me to ice skating regularly on the upper lagoon at Lords Park and sledding and tobogganing on the hills near our house. In my younger years I couldn't wait to get home from school to change into some warm outside clothing to ice skate or sled. I was cautious about wanting to go see Santa, but I would go, because I knew he wanted and needed my Christmas list. He also wanted to know if I had been a good boy."
-- Greg Schneider
"I was blessed to have many great Christmas memories in the '60s. Many involved Gromer's Supermarkets, which were a special part of the Elgin community. My father, Norman Klemm, was Gromer's first employee starting in 1938. By the 1960s Gromer's was the place to buy your live Christmas tree and all of your special food for the holidays. They would give away turkeys and hams in a promotion that was called 'Santa's Sweepstakes.'
There were many people of German descent at that time in Elgin and my father learned how to make a German breakfast sausage called rinderwurst. He would make several hundred pounds each week. We would fry it up and put on toast with Karo syrup. I also remember the area of the store with free coffee, hot chocolate, freshly baked doughnuts, and sweet rolls."
-- Roger Klemm
Children admire toys in the Ace Hardware window display in this cover from the "Watch Word" magazine of Elgin National Watch Co.
- Courtesy of Jerry Turnquist
A simpler time
"It was a magic time to grow up in Elgin, although the realization of it didn't come to me until much later. I felt safe and at home in Elgin and folk were generally friendly and kind. The only life distraction back then was TV and radio. Today, I can't imagine growing up where a 7-year-old can click a mouse and virtually be standing on a street in Tokyo."
-- Mark Coleman
Tobogganing on the north end
"My biggest treat was tobogganing down the hill on Elgin's north end. It was a brick street at the end of Spring Street, leading to the water treatment plant. When I was in junior high, it was called Aley's Hill because the Aley family lived nearby. Later I heard from others that the name changed over the years depending on whomever lived in the house associated with that hill. It was a great toboggan or sledding hill, as it curved to the left when going down. There was an embankment on the side you would 'sled' up onto on the way down. There would be kids from all over the north end at that hill in the winter."
-- Chandler Swan
Neighbors helping neighbors
"Although it was a very scary event for me, we always visited the Santa in the basement of the Spiess store.
My dad worked at McGraw's, and the company rented out the Crocker Theater for a kids' program. Gifts were distributed in the lobby as we left. Many times my dad, my brother and I would shovel snow at night during heavy snows. We often would do the walks and driveways of the widow next door and two older couples in addition to our own. There was a streetlight at the side of our drive which always showed just how heavily the snow was coming down. The only sounds were the shovels scraping on the cement. There were no blowers back then -- just the rare sound of a car driving by with chains on the tires hitting the bricks on Raymond Street. I still love a good nighttime snow to this very day."
-- Carol Lamz Herra
Department store gift wrapping
"The gift-wrapping alcove of Ackemann's Department Store fascinated me as a child. On tiptoe, I would gaze at the sample presents, blue with shiny silver bows, dark green with velvet plaid ribbons, some festooned with crimson berries or tiny frosted pine cones. I marveled at the deft and dexterous women who, in a snap, made a mundane shirt box look holiday deluxe. To my young eyes, it was lavishly festive."
-- Jennifer Green
The Lords Park lagoon was a highly popular ice skating location for years.
- Courtesy of Ray Strahl
Skating at Lords Park
"We would go ice skating at Lords Park lagoon. My folks used to take me out there to ice skate in the evenings with all of the lights. The pavilion was open so you could warm up before heading back out for more skating. My mom would always pack a thermos of hot chocolate for all of us. It's too bad that today it is closed to ice skating as I think kids are missing a special experience that we had as kids. My cousins and other family members had many enjoyable times there at Lords Park, especially ice skating in the winter."
-- Ray Strahl
Elgin's busy downtown was highlighted by a community Christmas tree in Fountain Square.
- Courtesy of Chandler Swan
"Christmas in the 1950s and '60s is still very clear to me. It was downtown Elgin that was always a wonderland to see -- shop, go bowling, go to church services, etc. There was always a very large Christmas tree in Fountain Square and we would go to the tree lighting ceremony each year. In the late '40s I sang with the a cappella choir from Elgin High and at Christmas we would sing in the second floor window of Barnett's for the people doing their shopping."
-- Ellen Weidner
"When we were teenagers my friends Alonzo Smith, Johnny White and I entered a skating contest at Lords Park. People came from various states to take part in the contests. I think we were the only Blacks. We didn't do very well, but we had a lot of fun."
-- Ernie Broadnax
Many Elgin area residents have fond memories of ice skating at Lords Park.
- Courtesy of Elgin History Museum
Teddy on the train
"When I was 10 years old, my 12-year-old sister and I shopped for my mom during the 1960 holiday season, because she had broken her wrist. We took the train into Elgin from Bartlett. We went to Spiess Department Store with Mom's credit card. She had called the store and gotten their permission for us to use the card. We had her list of presents, which included a teddy bear for our 4-year-old sister. We bought the biggest one we could find, which was at least 3 feet tall. We lugged it and all the other presents home on the train. Thank goodness we only lived a block away from the train station. Mom couldn't stop laughing when she saw us walking home. The teddy bear was a big hit!"
-- Janet Banwart
Moose Lodge kids' Christmas party
"Every year the Elgin Moose Lodge would fill their second floor with kids during their annual Christmas Party. Elgin Fireman Bill Genz played Santa yearly and led the kids in 'Jingle Bells.' At the end of each party, kids were given huge stockings filled with nuts, fruit, hard candy and small toys. Last name of children beginning with A-L went to the morning party; M-Z went to the afternoon party. The place was packed as the parents were downstairs having Christmas cheer."
-- Bill Ryan
Barnett's store often used local high school girls in its ads. The store's second floor display window in the heart of downtown often featured local singers whose voices were projected to the shoppers below.
- Courtesy of Jerry Turnquist
Downtown merchant remembers
"Our family operated Wilson's Shoes in downtown Elgin since the 1920s. In the '50s and '60s every store decorated windows. Inside we used to hang garland across the store. We had boxes of Christmas decorations that we used everywhere. In the '50s, women had matching handbags to their shoes adding to the gifts. Slippers were a must for both parents and grandparents. Winter boots were also important, including insulated work boots for many men.
Nighttime and weekends were busiest. The streets were bright and filled with shoppers rushing around. We were open Monday and Thursday nights and always closed on Sunday. That was also the times many farmers could get away to shop. All retailers had a holiday giveaway and ran ads in the papers. As I look back, many times the gifts were practical and it was simpler times."
-- Jan Yaniz