Elkhorn's claim to Christmas card fame

By Herb Moering/Contributor

(Published Nov. 22, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

My kids all grew up in Elkhorn and went through the local public school system. But, because they moved on to other places, only my youngest child, Cassandra, was around to see some of the first Elkhorn Christmas Card Town parades that began exactly 25 years ago.

Borrowing on the Christmas Card Town title that became attached to the city from a series of paintings by a visiting artist, Cecile Johnson, of Scarsdale, N.Y., the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce revived the theme idea in 1981, turning it into an annual holiday celebration.

Elkhorn received the Christmas Card Town designation in the late 1950s. Johnson returned to the city in 1957 to recapture scenes of the area she had noticed the previous year during a visit. Some of the painted holiday scenes depicted in Courthouse Park along with some historic homes in Elkhorn became popular as Christmas cards. In 1958 several of the paintings were reproduced in the December issue of Ford Times magazine, bringing national attention to Elkhorn.

Five of the six original paintings now hang in Elkhorn's Matheson Memorial Library. The one Johnson painting that has been lost is of the Webster House Museum. But, Johnson has another scene of Wisconsin Street as seen from Courthouse Park, which she painted in the '70s.

The painting of local scenes has been carried on in recent years by Jan Castle Reed of Elkhorn, who has produced a painting annually. Her nine paintings, also displayed at the library, include wintertime pictures of historic homes, the center of town, a church, plus the interior of the Webster House at Christmas and one of the great Walworth County Fair.

While the park holiday displays are erected annually just before Thanksgiving, the Christmas season really gets under way with the traditional parade on the first Saturday in December. Each parade has a theme and this year's for the Dec. 2 event is "Silver Bells."

The annual parade is also the subject of Jan Castle Reed's latest painting that was unveiled late this summer by the chamber of commerce. It was done to mark the 25th year of parades, which is expected to draw about 100 participating units, including some special entries.

It was only a few years after the parades were held that Cousin Otto's Clown Alley from Delavan became a participating member each year. I don't recall the exact year the clowns became part of Elkhorn's tradition, but it's probably close to 20 years they have been taking part.

I mention the clowns in particular because of my membership in the alley and frequent appearances almost every year until the mid-1990s when I moved from the area.

I can recall one year in particular that presented a huge challenge for all those participating in the parade. It was mighty cold that day in early December, leaving most band members dealing with frozen horns. The Elkhorn National Guard unit was dispensing free hot chocolate and coffee from an army tent in Courthouse Park.

My memory of that day began with arrival at the Walworth County Fairgrounds, the site for the lineup and end of the parade. I remember not wanting to get out of my vehicle until the parade actually began.

The sun may have been shining, but you couldn't feel its effect, not with the mercury hovering around 10 degrees and a biting wind whipping out of the northeast at about 25 mph, although it seemed more like 50 mph.

To protect against the harsh conditions, Happy Herbie the clown had on thermal long underwear, corduroy pants, flannel shirt, plus heavy quilted pants and top beneath the warmest costume he could find. Dark snowmobile boots replaced the traditional clown shoes and a stocking hat covered much of my wig with double mittens for the hands.

To the hardy spectator, Happy Herbie looked like a really overweight clown. But at least that fat clown was reasonably warm and safe from frostbite. However, the face makeup nor the special nose didn't offer much protection from the cold. Nobody hung around the downtown square after the parade went past, but that should have been great for merchants, whose stores offered a warm sanctuary from the cold.

I hope much more pleasant weather is in store for this year's parade that steps off from the fairgrounds at 1:30 p.m.

Incidentally, the paintings created by both Johnson and Reed are available for purchase as Christmas cards from the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber's Web site, www.elkhorn-wi.org, has pictures of each scene along with prices.

The author, a former editor of The Week and Elkhorn Independent, is also Happy Herbie.

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