For years it was known as “The Christmas Store.”
It was Peck’s, the four-story department store known for its spectacular decorations inside and out, and for its magical “Toyland” where boys and girls made their yearly visit to Santa.
The store’s miraculous transformation always took place on the first Sunday of November, and for about eight weeks, the special lights and sounds shaped holiday memories for thousands of families in the Twin Cities, and far beyond.
It always seemed to me that Peck’s was at its best and brightest in the early 1950s, when I was among those youngsters who eagerly endured that long line inching closer and closer to St. Nick.
Sometimes, passing years reveal flaws in childhood impressions. We learn how these wonders of childhood were accomplished, but the marvels of Christmas at Peck’s have never been diminished. I recently learned a lot about the process of turning Peck’s into The Christmas Store, and I am more impressed than ever at what teamwork and talent accomplished.
Rose O’Brien, who wrote many feature stories for the Lewiston Evening Journal, told how it was done in 1953.
Richard MacWilliams, display manager, said planning for the Christmas decorations takes months. He begins to formulate ideas in the spring, and things are beginning to come into focus when MacWilliams heads to the big decorating show in New York in mid-September.
The massive decorating project begins in early November, and it takes about three weeks to accomplish it all. First comes the exterior decorations. Giant pulleys on the building’s roof lift huge arches of fir 30 feet tall. Specially made boards hold the arches, and the decorating crew and a number of helpers lean out the windows at various levels to attach the arches securely.
After placement of the arches and the 2,000 light bulbs on them, the large sign proclaiming “Peck’s - Your Christmas Store” is hung.
Three large and beautifully-trimmed Christmas trees are placed on the Main Street marquee roof, with red and gold candles and a huge gold wreath flanking the trees. The Chapel Street entrance to Peck’s is also decorated with trees and candles.
Although the outdoor decorations stood the test of many winter storms over the years, there was a major storm on Thanksgiving Eve in 1953. Winds of more than 60 mph blew out the plate glass of the “toys window,” which had been completed three days earlier. The Peck’s crews were able to repair the damage within a few days.
After the one-day exterior project, work moves to the main floor. The inner side of the main aisle posts of the first floor are decorated with silver roping and snowflake balls. There’s a midnight sky background on the back wall with twinkling lights for stars.
O’Brien’s story said the orders for the job read like this: “Hang deer and Santa over main aisle. Decorate deer with gold collars. Colored Christmas balls around collars. Feather sticks in top of collars. White and silver roping suspended from deer to deer.” There were 150 wreaths hung throughout the store.
In the basement, each year’s themes were different. The main aisle to Toyland was marked with metallic roping and stars and giant candy canes. A particularly memorable feature was the “fishpond,” which was once a merry-go-round. Santa’s realm is different each year, ranging from a workshop to an ice palace.
Decorators working for MacWillams in 1953 were Leslie S. Proctor and Ralph E. Harlow, window decorators, and Frank R. McAllister, sign machine operator. Each of the decorators heads a crew of three or four workers.
The store’s 19 display windows were well known for their remarkable quality. Two national surveys in the 20 years previous to 1953 had recognized Peck’s for the best displays for a store of its size.
O’Brien said, “There have been times when Peck’s paved the way in new ideas for store decorating.”
The plan for a full-size sleigh for Santa called for reindeer, but MacWilliams was not able to find what was needed. He went to a Boston shop and had them custom-made, and they were soon in demand by other stores.
There are still lots of Christmas events that today’s youngsters will recall for the rest of their lives, but it seems impossible to match the memories that were made at “the head of the street” in Lewiston.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He may be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.