Kane County History: Christmas Memories in Elgin

Kane County History: Christmas Memories in Elgin

Barnett’s photo – Photo courtesy of Chandler Swan     

Elgin National Watch Factory, 1920s.

Christmas Card 1920s from artist Karel Zak.

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Elgin Historian Jerry Turnquist. It was originally scheduled to post on Dec. 25.

Elgin Historian Jerry Turnquist recorded some memories of Christmas time in the Elgin area. If you have a story you remember, please send it along to museum@elginhistory.org for the Museum collections.

Santa on a fire truck

“A clear memory I have of Christmas was when Santa Claus came to town, Fountain Square. He got off the fire truck, came up to me and called me by name.  Years later I found out that Santa was Bill Genz a close friend of my Mom. Needless to say, that made my day!”

— Charlie Liepitz

Skating and shopping

The Lords Park “lagoons” were a highly popular skating location for years.  Photo courtesy Ray Strahl.

“Ice skating at Lord’s Park was like being in a Currier and Ives print! The lagoon with an island in the middle, a beautiful Pavilion and a little warming area inside a little room on the bottom floor.

“Sadly for me, having just moved back to Elgin after living in California, I didn’t know how to ice skate. There isn’t a lot of ice in Los Angeles. I did try, but wasn’t very good, but still it was a great place to go.

“We would probably then head down to the Esquire restaurant in Fountain Square after for something to eat – usually just a Coke and fries, but they also had great ice cream sundaes!

“Fountain Square also had Christmas Carols being sung in the upstairs window of Barnett’s, a women’s clothing store. Barnett’s was one of many women’s stores, but it was special at Christmas and at other times of the year as they would use girls from Elgin High and St. Ed’s for models in their newspaper ads.

“There was Christmas shopping at one of the many department stores downtown, Ackemanns, Block & Kuhl, J.C. Penney, Sears, Spiess. There were also many men’s or women’s stores, Chuck Hines, Brenner’s, Kay Campbell’s, or Singers, just a few of the many stores.”

— Chandler Sawn

Santa was ‘magic’

Santa at Ackemann’s Department Store, 1956.

“I was probably in first or second grade in 1956 or 1957, and tagging along with my mom in downtown Elgin during mid-December shopping. I can remember it being busy at all the major stores Ackemann’s, Spiess, Sears, and J.C. Penny.

“At all the stores there were lines of kids waiting to talk to Santa. I remember asking my mom how in the world Santa Claus worked at all these stores at the same time.  My mom’s answer was ‘Magic.’ “

— Lyle Wolff

Fun in the snow

“I grew up on St. Charles Street in Elgin. In the wintertime, my uncle used to plow our driveway with his jeep and a snowplow and push the snow over the retaining wall. We would build up a snow packed ramp from the upper back yard to the lower back yard and sled from our yard almost all of the way to the neighbor’s house.

“It was also my job to make sure all of the sidewalks were shoveled and I even shoveled the street next to the curb so when cars would pull up, they wouldn’t have to be concerned with getting stuck or people wouldn’t have to step through the snow to get to the sidewalk.” 

— Ray Strahl

Special ornaments from Germany

“Personally for me, Christmas time was always about tradition and family. We decorated the tree with ornaments from my childhood, my parent’s childhood. These included special decorations which my maternal grandfather had brought over with him from Germany. All of these I still have.

“The perfect ending was Christmas Eve candlelight service at First Congregational Church singing Christmas Carols.”

— Chandler Swan

Santa was scary

Santa at Spiess Department Store with Paul Larson, 1950s.

“Spiess and Ackemann’s department stores always had a Santa for the kids to visit and reveal what their wants were. Sometimes Sears would have him walking around their store talking to the little ones.

“My youngest daughter, Barb, was scared to death of him so we didn’t see him too much BUT he did make a home visit. It was Bill Genz of the Elgin Fire Department. Barb didn’t like him then, either.

“Those were fun days to go downtown to see all of the Christmas decorations on ALL the stores and red kettles of the Salvation Army on almost every corner. In those days, it seemed like everyone knew everyone and it was a fun time. A wonderful time to be an Elginite!”

— Ellen Weidner

It was a magic time

Tri-State Speed Skating Competition, 1950s.

“I have many fond memories of winter skating the lagoons of Lord’s Park. The parks had competitive skating there and they actually groomed the ice so the racers skated on near glass.

“As a kid, watching the older boys glide around with their racing skates made me want to throw away my clunky hockey skates, and I pined for the black long-bladed racers. Most of the time was spent on the well-lit upper lagoon because it was always in better shape and, being closer to the warming pavilion had something to do with it, too.

“Somebody dared my little wild brother to skate over toward the thin ice. It was on the north side where the creek entered the lagoon and the ice was always thin and barricaded. Yep, he went through the ice and caused a big stir for an hour or so. He survived, and so did we.

“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 distractions back then were 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

Singing at Fountain Square

“Singing has been a big part of my life, and during the years from 1951 through 1953, I was a member of the Elgin High School A Cappella Choir. Each year during the Christmas season, the choir was invited to sing from the second floor of Barnett’s Clothing store in downtown Elgin.

“From the large window in front of us, we could see the crowds of shoppers in the street below and the city’s big Christmas tree in Fountain Square, which had no fountain and was not square.”

— Carl Missele

Christmas tree lots

“I remember Vege’s Christmas tree lot at the corner of Liberty and Cooper in the 1950s.

“My Dad, who was an Elgin fireman, and his co-workers would sell trees every year on their off days. That lot was so reminiscent of the lot in the movie Christmas Story right down to the strings of light bulbs and rows of trees.

“Each year dad would bring home one of the ‘free’ undesired trees for our living room.”

— Bill Ryan

Barbie & Ken dolls

“My most vivid Christmas memory of downtown Elgin as a child was walking down the steps to the basement of the Osco. It was next to the First National Bank. After my mom would do her banking, she would take my sister and me to Osco.

“At Christmastime, Osco would decorate their basement and it was a wonderland. Walking down those stairs was magical. I could not wait to roam the aisles in order to make my Christmas list.

“It was there that I saw my Barbie Dreamboat Chris Craft Yacht play set. Finally, Ken, Skipper, and Malibu Barbie could sail the high seas!”

— Sara Sabo


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