MANITOWOC — Barb Bundy-Jost spent 33 years as an art teacher at Manitowoc Lincoln High School. But on this day she was schooling Baby Boomers from the Lifelong Learning Institute at the UW-Green Bay Manitowoc Campus on the finer points of aluminum Christmas trees.
In a second-floor meeting room of the Manitowoc Public Library she told the humorous tale of buying her first tree in 2004 for $800 but trying to hide the purchase from her husband. It didn’t work. She became obsessed and now owns 25 trees that are worth north of $30,000.
At one time more than 40 companies around the country produced aluminum Christmas trees, but Manitowoc was the epicenter. And Bundy-Jost’s presentation was all inclusive — the history of the trees (they started being manufactured here in 1959), how to care for and clean them (use cotton gloves), decorating tips (it’s best not to), where to find the trees (eBay) and how much you can expect to pay (anywhere from $500 to more than $2,500). She also passed around a box of branches and had her students practice removing the fragile branches adorned with ribbons of aluminum foil from their paper sleeves and then instructed them how to carefully return the branches so they could be safely stored.
“You have to be very gentle,” Bundy-Jost, 62, instructed. “It’s like a brand new baby. Tap, tap, tap, tap.”
On Dec. 14 and Dec. 21, Bundy-Jost will take her schtick mobile as part of the fifth annual “Evergleams on Eighth.” That’s when for the third straight year she’ll board a trolley along with about 30 others and narrate tours of this city’s downtown that has gone all-in on its love affair with aluminum Christmas trees that were once manufactured by Aluminum Specialty Company and, on a lesser scale, Mirro.
Thirty-six businesses here have one or more of the trees in their front windows through Jan. 5. Most of them are on South Eighth Street, the city’s main downtown drag, but others can be found at 13 other spots just off the main street, including at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. Most businesses have one or two, and a few have three or four. But the biggest display is on the first floor of the library, where a forest of aluminum trees in multiple colors and sizes fill the front window. There’s even a rare 10-foot tree set up on a table, towering over the exhibit area.
“I didn’t know the breadth of the trees until they started putting them up,” said Kristin Stoeger, the library’s director and a Manitowoc native whose grandmother had an aluminum tree. “There’s such a variety, and the community has really enjoyed having an opportunity to be exposed to this. For some people it’s a blast from the past, and for others it’s a new opportunity.”
The library exhibit, which is similar to a display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, also includes a display about the National Tinsel Manufacturing Company, which made tinsel, garland and other shiny Christmas products in Manitowoc, and there are storyboards from 1959 that show what life was like in Manitowoc when Aluminum Specialty began manufacturing its world-famous Evergleam trees.
The Evergleams entered the pop culture realm in 2004 after artists John Shimon and Julie Lindemann returned to their native Manitowoc in 1989 and began collecting the aluminum trees via garage and estate sales and dumpsters to create a forest in their art studio. As their collection grew, they met more and more people who had an attachment to the trees. As people continued to share their stories, they eventually had enough for a book, “Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree.”
“The legacy of the aluminum tree is part of the local terrain,” the couple wrote in their book. “Our ambivalence toward seasonal decor helped us resist the trees at first. It took us a while to realize that they were a peculiar form of representational sculpture worth dragging back to our studio.”
The Manitowoc and Two Rivers area have always been blue-collar manufacturing towns. The products over the years have included cranes, boats and wind turbines, but aluminum has played a central role in the economy since the late-1800s.
The roots of the Mirro Aluminum Company of Manitowoc can be traced to 1893, but the cookware company shuttered its Manitowoc facility in 2003. The Stolze Manufacturing company was founded in 1888 in Manitowoc and in 1915 became the National Tinsel Manufacturing Company. Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry was established in 1909 and remains in business today.
Aluminum Specialty Company came along in 1909 and became a large manufacturer of kitchen utensils and toys but 60 years ago launched a line of aluminum Christmas trees.
As the story goes, a sales representative was at a Christmas party for the Ben Franklin chain of stores in 1958 when he was shown an aluminum tree that a Chicago company had started making. The original version was a hard sell because it cost up to $150 at the time and was difficult to assemble. Aluminum Specialty engineers were given the task of designing a tree that was affordable, portable and easy to assemble. They pulled it off in just three months and were ready to mass produce the trees in time for the 1959 Christmas season.
Once they had that down, they spent the next decade adding features, from fuller branches and multiple colors to revolving bases that played music and lit up the tree in a flood of color. They even had a line of wreaths. The company stopped manufacturing the aluminum Christmas products in the early 1970s, but more than 1 million Evergleam trees made it into American homes.
Many of the trees in downtown businesses are from Steve Siehr, who began collecting trees in 2008 and has amassed more than 200. Francine Pfeffer, 67, began her collection in 2013 and it has grown to more than 80 trees. The Manitowoc native now lives in Appleton, where she keeps 17 trees up in her home year-round. Her father’s cousin, Wes Martin, was one of the engineers who helped create the first Evergleam. Some of Pfeffer’s trees are on display this year at the library.
“They’re like the Gremlin, the car, you either hate ’em or love ’em,” Pfeffer said. “They made so many styles. When I started collecting I had no clue. I just love them.”
Many of the trees, most of which range in height from 2 to 8 feet tall, are silver, but others come in red, green and blue. One style has branches tipped with red bows.
Bundy-Jost would like to see a museum created that highlights the aluminum products made in Manitowoc. But for now, she’s content talking about the trees that provided good-paying jobs back in the day and now bring tourists to her city.
“They represent a time when we were celebrating,” Bundy-Jost said. “We had the space race, and we were moving into this new modern way of doing things and making things. And that’s when this town was really cooking. The people who worked for Aluminum Specialty made good livings. These represent good times and progress.”
Fave 5: Reporter Barry Adams picks his best-loved stories from 2019
We are sharing Wisconsin State Journal staffers' favorite work from 2019. From reporter Barry Adams: I had a hard time picking just five favorite stories over the last year. But here are some that really stood out to me: Superior Fresh is disrupting the food chain with an indoor salmon and vegetable production facility in rural Jackson County. Eau Claire is now one of the state's coolest cities. Lyle Lidholm shows age is no barrier to hiking, while one of the largest collections of grass tennis courts in the country is in central Wisconsin. And a Hmong refugee showed us determination, courage and entrepreneurial spirit.
Superior Fresh in Jackson County has the world's largest aquaponics system that raises Atlantic salmon and leafy greens all being distributed in a 400 mile radius.
Boutique hotels, private and public investment has made Eau Claire an artisan destination.
Lyle Lidholm, of Watertown, began his trek Sept. 1 at Horicon Marsh and hopes to reach Moline, Illinois, by November.
The Adams County resort now has one of the largest collections of grass tennis courts in the country.
Nearly 15 years after coming to the U.S, Ka Lor opened his K Barber Shop at 5439 University Ave. in December.
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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