Christmas Past: Holiday Displays Downtown

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1997,
December 1997

Author: Grace Shackman

As recently as the 1950s, the imposing line of storefronts along South Main Street was relieved by a peaceful patch of lawn and a handsome Greek Revival house. It was the home of shopkeeper Bertha Muehlig, and the site of a fondly remembered holiday display. Every year, Muehlig, owner of Muehlig's dry goods, worked with the Chamber of Commerce to set up a Nativity scene in her front yard.

Muehlig's home and creche are often mentioned when longtime Ann Arborites recall Christmas shopping downtown in the pre-mall era. Fay Muehlig, Bertha Muehlig's niece by marriage, remembers "a baby in a little crib with Mary and Joseph, two or three feet high." After Bertha died in 1955, the Nativity scene was put up in front of the courthouse on the comer of Huron and Main for a few years—until concerns about the separation of church and state ended religious displays on public property.

For most of this century. Main Street was lined with department stores that mounted special window displays to entertain holiday shoppers. Old-timers recall being especially enthralled by the moving displays: a revolving tree in Mack and Company's window, a Shirley Temple doll playing the organ at Goody ear's, and an electric train going around and around in the window of Muehlig and Lanphear's hardware store (co-owner Edward Muehlig was Bertha Muehlig's brother).

Mack and Company, on the comer of Liberty and Main, was the premier department store in Ann Arbor before the Depression. Former employee Mabel Sager remembers that the store's buyers would "go to New York and Chicago and buy real nice stuff for Christmas." The late Edith Staebler Kempft remembered in a 1982 interview that the store always had a live Christmas tree. 'They had a large music box imported from Germany," she said. "They put the tree in the middle. When the music was on, the tree moved. You could see it from the Liberty Street entrance." Helen Schmid remembers a Santa who roamed around the store, talking to children about what they wanted for Christmas.

On the other side of Main Street, Muehlig and Lanphear's hardware store would set up its electric train. "Kids would have their noses up to the window," Marian Zwinch remembers. "Trains were out of the range of most people's pocketbooks." Fay Muehlig agrees, remembering that it wasn't unusual to get "an engine one Christmas and a passenger car or freight car the next."

Goodyear's, located in the next block of Main between Washington and Huron, eventually replaced Mack and Company as the most prominent downtown department store. In the 1950s, it was the first store to introduce free gift wrapping at
Christmas. "We hired young girls who sang carols as they wrapped," former Goodyear's manager Donna Moran recalls. "They were from the high school a cappella choir and wore cute little outfits." Their performance was a big hit, with long
lines, but after a few years they discontinued the singing because "it interfered with the wrapping," Moran recalls. "It was hard to sing and listen to what kind of paper the customer wanted."

On Kids Night, former Goodyear's employee Jean Brumley remembers, "We set up the cafeteria with different items, all low prices that the kids could buy for their parents. The mothers would bring them in and then go off."

For years, a highlight of the holiday season was seeing and hearing the doll in Goodyear's window "play" Christmas music on a pipe organ. "We always watched to see when they would put it in," Fay Muehlig remembers. "It was a fixture of Christmas." Speakers piped the music outside for passersby.

—Grace Shackman