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Fox Valley residents share Christmas memories
By Jerry Turnquist | Daily Herald Columnist

Going to Chicago to see the Marshall Field's Santa and the sights in the Loop was a fond memory for Jack Sunderlage and other Fox Valley residents.


Courtesy Jack Sunderlage

Many area residents say it's hard to beat the memories of sledding and ice skating at Lords Park. This image is from a greeting card drawn by Al Kocsis.


Courtesy Barbara Peer

What is now the parking lot for the Grand Victoria Casino once accommodated workers for the Elgin National Watch Co. The factory, which was located on National Street at Grove Avenue, is shown on a snowy day.


Courtesy Jerry Turnquist

Children admire the toys in a downtown Elgin window during the 1951 Christmas season.


Courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society

Area women commonly appeared in the ads for Barnett's Clotting Store in Elgin. A special holiday memory for many was the area groups who would be invited to sing at the store's second floor display window with their voices projected out to the shoppers below. Picture courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society.


Courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society

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Published: 12/26/2008 12:01 AM

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The sights, the sounds and even the smells of past holidays have left an indelible imprint on the minds of many.

These include bobsleds towed by cars on country roads, a first kiss while ice skating, caroling at the veterans hospital, and hot chocolate and cookies while coming in from the cold. The list goes on and on.

In response to a Daily Herald request, Fox Valley residents - present and past - shared some of their favorite holiday memories for this story.

A special thank you also goes to Elgin High School alumni Al Mink, Wally Niedert, and Ed Whitcomb who encouraged their fellow classmates to send in memories.

These reminiscences remind us again and again that the simplest of times spent with our family and friends in our local communities make up some of our most cherished memories. Enjoy the holiday season and don't miss one opportunity to create some future memories of your own.

Sled problems: Many years ago, I used to live at 132 Hill in Elgin. One year, I got one of those Flyer sleds that every kid wanted. There was a great hill that started at Hill Avenue and Park Street, and the kids would slide from north to south down Hill Avenue. The city bus would come up Hill Avenue from south to north, and I thought it would be fun to wait for the bus to get to a special place on the street. This would allow me to slide underneath the bus and come out the other end. The day I tried this, the bus driver was going crazy, blowing the horn because there just wasn't anywhere for the driver to go with cars parked on both sides of Hill Avenue, and I knew it.

Well, I did this only once, and wouldn't you just know that at that very special time my mother came out on the porch to check on me. She witnessed me sliding toward the bus, and under the bus and out the other end of the bus. That was the last time I ever saw that sled the rest of the winter, and I spent many hours in my room after dinners and on the weekends.

Peter Reynolds

Hot chocolate and cookies: It may not have been Christmas, but I remember an activity of a very, very cold day complete with sleet and wind when we went door to door in a fundraising effort to buy robes for the Elgin High School Choir to go to state competition. As a member of the Girl Reserves at the Y.W.C.A., I was part of the west side contingency seeking contributions. We reported to an address where a motherly soul gave us instructions and a canister for the money. We each had a route to cover (alone!) and then return to the house. The weather went from miserable to worse, and most shortened their routes, but I persevered and was a trudging icicle by the time I returned. Perhaps you can imagine how my spirits lifted as the aroma of fresh-baked cookies and hot chocolate wafted from our home base. I credit that experience for starting at the age of ten on a continuous road of happy volunteerism still signifying hot chocolate and cookies. Cheers!

Jean Nelson Phillips

Elgin High School class of 1942

Prescott, Az.

Sledding in South Elgin: I went to Pioneer School in South Elgin in the 1940s. We had two teachers. One taught first through fourth grade in one room while the other teacher taught fifth through eighth grade in another room. During the winter the boys would take their sleds to school and we had a great time sledding down Mill Street next to the school.

Village employee Irv Hulke was in charge of spreading cinders on the streets, but he usually skipped this street because he knew what great fun kids had in sledding on it. We sledded very close to the river sometimes and found ourselves getting back late from recess.

Paul Jordan

EHS class of 1948


Singing at the Veterans Hospital: Being a universal tradition, our wise music teacher scheduled us to sing at Hines Veteran's Hospital. After the rehearsing was complete, we arrived at the hospital on a snowy afternoon and were met by our nurse/guide. We strolled our way into the wards. The men loved our youthful voices and joined singing a cappella. Our last stop was the paraplegic ward. None of us were prepared to see young men with mangled bodies - the remains of war. The men cheered and smiled as we sang our hearts out. Many requests followed and they sang along teary-eyed. For my closing, I felt tears falling. We waved goodbye and said Merry Christmas. Our drive to Elgin was silent. None of us forgot caroling at Hines. Merry Christmas.

Dee Trentlage Bell

EHS class of 1949

Mission Viejo, Ca.

Fist kiss: I'll never forget my first date with my honey at the Lords Park's ice skating rink. We had our first kiss! She was then Alicia Evans.

Warne Blackman

Warming up at the potbellied stove: We "lived" at Lords Park in the skating season. I remember the speakers playing "Tennessee Waltz." I also remember the big potbellied stove that warmed the pavilion. Such fun! We lived close enough that on many nights we walked there after supper - even on school nights.

I also remember singing upstairs in Barnett's window, the special "Christmas Formal," and the Santa at Spiess and Ackemann's department stores. We had to see all the Santas to be sure we got "our order in." At 16, my first job was in the gift wrapping department at Ackemann's. I made a $1 an hour.

Lastly, Elgin stopped putting up its beautiful tree at Fountain Square - yet magically a smaller live decorated tree appeared one Christmas. According to a letter in the paper, it was a gift to Elgin from "Harry and Ron."

We were sure my Uncle Harry and his friend Ron did it!

Carol (Johns) Bradley

Social Circle, Ga.

Decorations at Bill Brown's west-side home: I have many wonderful holiday memories growing up in Elgin. These include the beautiful Christmas tree in the downtown across from the Tower Building, and the beautiful Christmas Eve services at the Methodist Church on Highland Avenue. I went with my father while my mom stayed home and played Santa Claus. However, my fondest memories are the beautiful holiday decorations that my parents, Bill and Virginia Brown displayed for everyone's enjoyment at our home on the corner of Highland Avenue and North DuBois Avenue.

Betty (Brown) McKinney

Fort Wayne, In.

Marshall Field's Santa: As an only child and the only grandchild for my paternal Grandma Dora Sunderlage, I received a lot of her attention. During the Christmas season, she would take me for the train ride from Elgin to Chicago. These were my first train rides, and they were very exciting. We would spend the day together in the Loop admiring all the Christmas displays in the various store windows. Marshall Field's had by far the most decorative and impressive window displays. The highlight of the day was riding their escalators, which were fascinating, up to see Santa. At age 7, I didn't believe in Santa anymore, but my grandmother delighted in seeing me with him, and I understood that was her highlight. As a young boy she "spoiled" me, and when she was in her 90s, I had many opportunities to "spoil" her! I still adore her.

Jack Sunderlage

Sandy, Ut.

Crack the whip: In the 1930s and early '40s, I remember Elgin's candlelight Christmas Eve church services. I also remember the huge icicles hanging off the edges of the metal roofs at Woodruff and Edwards' foundry on North State Street. I remember sliding down the Lords Park hill toward the upper lagoon on cardboard boxes we mooched from Fischer's grocery store that was across the street from the hill. There were also the skating races and "crack the whip" on the lagoons. I also remember trying to thaw frozen toes in the pavilion, and trying (unsuccessfully) to build igloos out of packed snow.

In the 1940s, I also remember "flipping" cars on our sleds while sledding down ice covered Sherman Avenue hill. I also remember catching the bumper of a moving auto and being towed on our sleds up the hills. Cars had real bumpers back then. I also remember girls in angora bobby socks and sweaters at the Canteen, as well as the Y.W.C.A. dance classes, and bobsleds towed by autos out on country roads.

Jim Baustert

EHS class of 1947

St. Paul, Minn.

Watch Factory children's party: The one thing about Elgin is that they always did the Christmas holidays right! I remember the annual Elgin National Watch Company Christmas parties, usually held in the Masonic Temple Building. My dad, Walter E. Vollman, worked much of his life for the company after he completed Watchmaker's College. They rented a Santa suit, and he "worked" the Christmas party thrown by the company for its employees' children. I think, if I remember correctly, that they began a film, had some entertainment, and Santa gave out bags of oranges, candy canes, and nuts. In more profitable times, there were other things included. 'Twas grand, it was! We always looked forward to it!

Nancy Vollman Foris

Luminarias on Christmas Eve: I remember sledding down the big hills at Wing Park and skating at Lords Park. One of my most vivid memories was leaving the Brethren Church one Christmas Eve and the street was lined with luminarias. It was beautiful and not common at that time.

Phyllis Van Buren Lalley

Mesa, Az.

Caroling with the Scouts: One of my most favorite memories was singing Christmas carols with the Girl Scouts and church youth group around the huge Christmas tree in the center of Fountain Square. Shoppers would stop and listen and often join in the caroling. Another favorite caroling memory was the Christmas musical at Columbia School. When I was quite young, it seems the eighth-grade girls had the most beautiful voices in the world singing "Oh Holy Night"! The program was followed by mothers serving home-baked Christmas cookies in our classrooms.

Marilyn Roth Schartow

Ice skating at Lords Park: Here's what I remember of Christmas in the 1920s. The streetcar line in Elgin ended on the outskirts of town. The mailman would ride to the end of Fountain Square in the downtown and head back to town through the fields of deep fallen snow from the previous morning. He had a big bag of mail he carried on his back. It was always heavy. I remember standing behind a large bay window, wondering if he had left anything for me or would I have to wait another day. I also remember going to Lords Park to watch the ice skating race in which Eddie Gathman ended the race several years as a No. 1.

Arlean Jensen

Roseville, Ca.

Santa suit still fits: My husband Don from the Elgin High School class of '57 and I agree that the Joseph Spiess Santa in Elgin was the very best and we also thought that his outfit was the most realistic. About three years ago, Don was asked if he would be the Santa for our children's Christmas party at St. Peters Lutheran Church in North Plato, just west of Elgin. He said he would be delighted and he has done this for the last three years. But, the best part of this story is that the Santa suit he wears each year is the same one the "Best Santa in Elgin" wore all those years ago. It is still in pristine condition and Don wears it with pride. We do have a little girl in our church who told her best buddy that Santa Claus goes to her church when she noticed that Santa sure looks like the gentleman that sits right behind her in church each Sunday!

Christmas blessings to all.

Sandra "Hinch" Dorwaldt


Singing in downtown Elgin: Here's what I remember of the Christmas holiday season in 1950. Maybe some will remember when the grade schools in Elgin were invited to bring their choirs to sing for the Christmas shoppers in Fountain Square. The attire for the carolers was a white shirt or blouse and dark trousers. The performance stage was the second story display window of Barnett's ladies clothing store. They even lit the stage. Our well practiced renditions of carols were broadcast to the shoppers below with a P.A. system. I was an eighth-grader at Sheridan School when I participated in this event. Our class was the last of the grade schools which at the time were K-8. Larsen and Ellis junior high schools, now middle schools, opened in the fall of 1951.

Marie Ann Collier Eckel

Hazel Green, Wi.

Shopping in downtown Elgin: Here's one of my favorite holiday memories. Holiday shopping has changed quite a bit in Elgin. In 1974, when I was 10 years old, I remember riding the city bus by myself to go Christmas shopping in downtown Elgin. My big 20 dollar bill bought a whole lot of stuff at Woolworth's, Osco's, Fannie May, and Anderson's Gift Shop. Part of the excitement for me was standing in the foyer of the Sear's store on Spring Street with all of the other holiday shoppers loaded down with gifts waiting for the city buses to arrive to take us all home.

Joan (Cattron) Albert


Live nativity at Elgin hospital: My fondest memory as a child was back in the late 1940s and early '50s. The Elgin State Hospital (now the Elgin Mental Health Center) would have a live nativity scene with live animals. Every year it had different animals. I remember a sheep and a donkey. It was awesome - especially if we were lucky enough to have some snow on the ground.

Carole "Hoppe" Dickerson

Fun at Elgin's Lords Park: I always remember the Spiess Department Store with all of their Christmas decorations during the holiday season. I mostly cherish the time we all spent out at the lagoon at Lords Park in the winter. I don't think there was a night that we didn't get together for ice skating and meeting friends there. It was a tradition that was a great part of growing up in Elgin in the 1960s. It was a place for meeting dates and just hanging out with friends. I am glad that we had those times because now there is very little of that because of the times and the winter weather. What a great thing to have grown up in Elgin! I now live in St. Louis, Mo. and I try to get home as much as possible. Take care.

Bob Wahl

EHS class of 1968

St. Louis, Mo.

Boys on the Hill: Several of my friends would patronize the "Boys on the Hill" (now the Elgin Public House) after school and "Frank" behind the counter would give an occasional free coke to a certain girl. In high school, I worked at Barnett's and would enjoy selling extravagant gifts to men for their wives or girl friends - only to be returned the next week.

Doris Carlson Survant

Santa in the Igloo: I remember the large Christmas tree on the first floor of Columbia Grade School in Elgin and how each class would take a turn at singing carols around the tree. When we were in class and another class was singing, our teachers would open our classroom door so we could enjoy the music. After my class sang, we were given a box with a string handle of hard candy to take home. I remember getting my first electric train and how I put it up around the tree every year following. (I still do.) I remember the Christmas night formal dances at the Masonic Temple while in high school. I remember when Elgin stores were open until 9 o'clock two weeks before Christmas. I also remember the organ set up in Block & Kuhls store playing carols. I remember the Santa at Ackemann's Department Store when he was sitting in an igloo and we viewed him through a concave window to make him look far away in the North Pole. We then talked to him on a telephone. I remember getting $5 from my parents to buy a present for my two sisters and Mom and Dad. I also remember how our family would listen to the Elgin National Watch Company's two-hour Christmas Show on CBS Radio with tons of stars performing. How wonderful it was to Christmas shop if it was snowing. Christmas in Elgin holds so many choice memories for me."

Wally Niedert

Salt Lake City, Ut.

Masonic Temple dances: One of my fondest Christmas memories is my first formal dance at the age of 14 at the Masonic Temple. What a magic night that was with the lights down low, dancing cheek to cheek with "my guy." I'm in the class of 1957, so that gives you the time of that dance. Then there was ice skating at Lords Park, which was a long walk from my house, but I didn't mind the cold then as I do now. Needless to say, I don't ice skate these days, even living in Wisconsin. I do remember downtown Elgin at holiday time and going into Woolworth's - where I worked for a time during high school - and Kresge's, all the gorgeous windows at Spiess & Ackemann's department stores, the Christmas movies. Those were very good years.

Pat Skelley Erboe

Chocolate cokes at Pardee's: Growing up in Elgin I remember Christmas each year with fond memories. My dad and my uncle owned a local business, Keeney's Sporting Goods, and I remember each year the animals displayed on the walls would get adorned with holiday garb like a hat or a scarf. Mom and I would go shopping and she would take me to watch the tree lighting at the town square. We always would go to Pardee's on Douglas Avenue for soda or hot chocolate too while we waited for dad. They made real yummy chocolate cokes and all sorts of other soda fountain specialties. The Salvation Army bell ringers always tickled my ears with joy and excitement. My dad would take my brother and me to Lords Park to feed the ducks during the blistery winter days. The sights and smells of Elgin remind me of Blum's downtown and their delicious barbecue I loved there among other things. Fannie May chocolate shop was always a must during Christmas. The ladies inside wore decorations and hurried to fill each person's order. Lastly, a favorite memory takes me to Christmas Eve service at Good Shepherd Lutheran. I also remember warm candlelit aisles, crowded pews and everyone wearing their finest Christmas outfits hidden under their heavy coats.

Terry McClung

EHS class of 1968

San Clemente, Ca.