Memories remain vivid long after Peck’s Department Store loaded up its last sleigh.

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Once upon a time, if you told any kid from Lewiston that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, that kid would have laughed in your face. Every kid in Lewiston knew that Santa lived at Peck’s department store on Lisbon Street.

Before 1982, when a combination of the depressed local economy and the big box department store boom brought the century-old institution to its knees, B. Peck & Co. was the city’s flagship department store, dwarfing even national giants such as J.C. Penney and Sears, which sat nearby in the city’s once-thriving downtown. Founded in 1880 by businessman Bradford Peck, the store moved to its permanent home on Main Street, at the head of Lisbon Street, in 1899, and into the hearts and childhood memories of countless area residents.

Ray Biron grew up in New Auburn in the 1940s and ’50s, and clearly remembers what Lisbon Street was like during that era.

“It was different times. Lisbon Street used to be a two-way street. All of the cars had running boards. It was like the whole street was the mall,” recalls Biron.

“At Christmastime, it was all lit up. It was a magic place.”

Gerard Dennison of Auburn also has vivid memories of that time.

“Downtown was the place to be. There was no mall. Every store was decorated for Christmas. Most of the stores then were specialty shops – men’s stores, women’s stores, drugstores.”

Among all of that, though, Peck’s stood out as something special. The four-story department store — complete with elevator operators — provided a taste of luxury for the area’s mostly working-class residents.

“The store was out of this world. It was the most beautiful store in the whole world. I don’t know how they did it with all of those people there, but there wasn’t a thing out of place, and the floor was always spotless,” remembers Connie Bazinet Mercier.

“The first words my mother would say were, ‘Do not touch anything!’ Everybody was very polite and nice. I wish it was still there today.”

“It always smelled so nice in Peck’s when you went in,” says Biron.

Jeannine Reed Wilkins grew up in Jay, but remembers taking the bus to Lewiston with her mother just to visit Peck’s.

“You could always find exactly what you wanted immediately. If you wanted a nice shiny dress to wear at Christmas, you would go to Peck’s. It’s awful to think that it isn’t there anymore,” she says.

Christmastime at Peck’s was a special treat, with a Christmas tree and creche out front, trees inside the store, a working model train and stunning window displays.

“There were always Christmas trees out front and Christmas trees in the store, and the music was so beautiful. I don’t know where they got all of their beautiful ideas, but it was gorgeous,” says Mercier.

For many years, the store was also host to the area’s only department store Santa. Generations of kids flocked to the store’s basement to meet jolly old Saint Nick.

“We didn’t go there very often because it was an expensive store for us, but we did go to see Santa Claus,” recalls Mercier.

“Santa Claus was just plain gorgeous, and you got to take your time with him. It was something you’d never forget. He was very understanding and caring and you felt he really was Santa Claus. He’d tell you to be a good little girl, and you’d say ‘Oh, yes, Santa, I will!’ It made my whole year. It made you feel like Christmas.”

Wilkins has similar memories of visiting Santa.

“When I went up and sat on his lap, I took his hand and he was just so gentle. He was the true Santa. You just knew he was.”

Christine Darling Ayer was one of eight children in her family. Each year, during the 1940s and ’50s, her mother would load up the family and take the city bus from their home in Sabattus.

“Until I got to see Santa, it wasn’t Christmastime. To me, that was the real Santa. He had the best build – the rest were too skinny – and he had the best whiskers. If you saw a Santa somewhere else, that wasn’t the real one, unless you saw him at Peck’s. In my mind, as a little girl, that was Santa’s home. Looking back, it always makes me think of that movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’” says Ayer.

Dennison was also impressed by Santa’s big, bushy beard.

“I remember the looks on all of the other kids’ faces, and here I was sitting on his lap. He had that great long beard that you just wanted to tug at,” he says.

Elaine St. Pierre Toutain remembers waiting in a long line to see Santa. “There were elves and the whole thing was a big to-do. Seeing Santa at Peck’s was a big deal. He was the real thing.”

For Biron, getting to see Santa each year was like meeting a celebrity.

“You were in awe of him. It was like when you see a movie star in person. It was so much easier to believe in Santa when I was a child, because he was the only Santa. There wasn’t a Santa on every street corner.”

While visiting Santa, kids could also go “fishing” for toys in a plastic fish pond. Biron still remembers the cardboard popgun he won one year.

“When I went, the first thing I always wanted to do was fish for a toy,” remembers Ayer.

After years of visiting Santa as a child, Mercier went back to see him, on a dare, when she was 17.

“I went and sat on his lap, and I was bigger than Santa,” she recalls with a laugh.

That wasn’t the last time she saw Santa, either. When her two sons, Rene and Robert Parker, were little boys in the 1960s, she took them to see Santa at Peck’s too. Biron also took his sons, Scott and Peter, to see Santa in the 1970s.

Mercier wishes she could take her grandchildren to Peck’s and continue the family tradition.

“When I think of Peck’s, it means love, kindness, goodness, tenderness. Nice people,” she says.

She recently showed a picture of herself with Santa to her 4-year-old grandson.

“He said, ‘That’s not you! That’s a little girl!’”

Ayer, too, says she would go back to Peck’s today if it still existed.

She may get her wish. Sort of.

Next weekend, for one day only, nostalgic area residents will have the opportunity to travel back in time and visit Santa and the feelings that Peck’s evoked.

Next Saturday, Dec. 8, from noon to 4 p.m., Museum L-A will host an Old Fashioned Holiday Celebration, featuring period decorations from the heyday of Peck’s, including a Christmas tree, a Fontanini creche and displays reflecting Jewish, Greek Orthodox and other traditions in Lewiston-Auburn.

The Great Falls Railroad Club is recreating the model train that was a staple of Peck’s Christmas display.

There will also be a “Guess Who?” wall featuring photographs dating from the 1940s through the 1970s of youngsters visiting Santa at Peck’s. Guests can try to see whether they recognize their friends and neighbors among the faces on the wall.

The man in red himself will make an appearance, and PhotoFinish will be on hand to take photos of kids with Santa. Kids will be able to take a turn at trying to win a toy from the fish pond, just like mom and dad or grandma and grandpa used to.

Visitors can also check out the museum’s ongoing “Power of Music” exhibit, enjoy live holiday music and light refreshments.

Relive the Peck’s magic

Next Saturday, Dec. 8, from noon to 4 p.m., Museum L-A will host an Old Fashioned Holiday Celebration, featuring period decorations from the heyday of Peck’s, including a Christmas tree, a Fontanini creche and displays reflecting Jewish, Greek Orthodox and other traditions in Lewiston-Auburn.

The Great Falls Railroad Club will recreate the model train that was a staple of Peck’s Christmas display.

There will be a “Guess Who?” wall featuring photographs dating from the 1940s through the 1970s of youngsters visiting Santa at Peck’s.

Santa will be on hand and PhotoFinish will take photos of kids with Santa.

The event will also feature a fish pond similar to the one at Peck’s, live holiday music and light refreshments.

Admission is $5; free for children 6 and under. For more information, call 333-3881, email [email protected] or visit www.museumla.org.

The museum is currently in the Bates Mill Complex, in the area where DaVinci’s Restaurant was once located. Access is best obtained from Chestnut Street. Coming from Lisbon Street, follow Chestnut Street over a small cement bridge spanning the canal and take an immediate right into the parking lot of the Bates Mill Complex. Parking is at the far end of the lot in front of the Museum L-A sign on the ground floor.

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