Decked out for Christmas one last time
The current garland decoration began in 1933, but downtown New Ulm was celebrating the Christmas season from much earlier.
In November 1914, the New Ulm Review newspaper posted an article encouraging the city to adopt a municipal tree.
This was a popular trend among cities. Two years earlier New York began its tradition of placing a Christmas tree in Madison Square Garden. This influenced other communities to follow suit, including New Ulm.
According to the book “Historical Notes: A Glimpse At New Ulm’s Past (Volume I & Volume II)” by Elroy E. Ubl, the city’s first municipal Christmas tree was placed at the intersection of First North and Minnesota Streets. A formal dedication and lighting of the three occurred Dec. 23, 1914, and was a popular attraction.
Attempts to photograph the tree were difficult due to the intense lights. The tree was wired with electrical lights, giving an intense glow. The New Ulm Review features a photo of the tree, but the halo from the lights obscured the actual tree.
The tree remained at First North and Minnesota for a week. Eventually, a clear photograph was taken and the photo was reproduced as a postcard. The Brown County Historical Society has one of these postcards (below) in its archives.
Records of time suggest the municipal Christmas tree was a one-time event. The city did not erect another tree in 1915. No permanent holiday decoration plan began until 1925.
In the early 1920s, businesses would hang out flags during the holiday season. It started informally, but eventually, a group of area businessmen in New Ulm’s Commercial Club organized and approved a new plan.
This plan was to place 100 lighted 10-foot Christmas trees on both sides of Minnesota Street in front of the downtown businesses. Flagpole holes already lined the street and were used during other holiday celebrations. These holes were repurposed for trees.
The Commercial Club’s idea was to bring attention to New Ulm during the holiday season.
It worked. News of New Ulm’s Christmas decorations spread and out-of-town visitors came and shopped the downtown businesses.
The Christmas tree decoration continued for the next eight years. Local businesses decided to change the decoration in 1933 because the bulbs and ornaments on the Christmas trees were too easily broken.
It was decided to change the decorations to garlands. The plan was to hang illuminated garlands of balsam across Minnesota street, four to each block, with electric lights and centerpieces.
The garland display included neon light center pieces in the shapes of stars and bells. These were originally manufactured by Louis Windhorn.
He operated a sign business and was also a glassblower in New Ulm from 1917 until 1970. It is unknown if his neon signs were part of the original garland display in 1933, but the neon lights can be seen in a photograph from 1938.
At the time, the city thought the neon lights would not survive a Minnesota blizzard, but some remain to this day.
Sid DeLeo of Sid’s Signs said his company has made replacement neon bells and signs for the garland but an estimated half of the neon bells and stars used are still Windhorn originals.
DeLeo said the neon lights do not burn out quickly. As long as they are not damaged, they should continue working for a long time. A mesh screen is placed over each of the star and bell lights for added protection.
For the last 86 years, the city has purchased and hung the garlands over Minnesota Street, but 2019 might be the last year of the tradition.
In 2016, the garlands led to a fire when an electrical wire shorted out atop one of the buildings. This started a conversation about the safety of the decorations and liability concerns. A structural analysis to determine if the buildings could continue holding the garlands is estimated at $100,000.
In 2018, the building owners signed a one-year agreement allowing the city to hang garlands while a permanent solution was considered. A similar, one-year easement was approved in 2019.
City officials will be meeting with the Downtown Action Team to determine the future of downtown holiday decorations.
The city has made no formal decision on which direction to take with Christmas decorations next year, but New Ulm’s 2020 budget does include $50,000 for new holiday decorations.
The garlands could be a thing of the past, but the city is committed to continuing the downtown holiday decorating tradition for many Christmases to come.