“Christmas at the Courthouse: Gratiot County’s Gift, 1949-1970”

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Christmas Season 1966 at the Gratiot County Courthouse. This photo remains as one of the best remaining pictures of the courthouse taken during the holiday season in Ithaca.
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Glen Rhines prepares to decorate the Gratiot County Courthouse in 1963. The sleigh weighed a lot, but Rhines got to the top of the courthouse. It was a dark time after the death of President Kennedy and the idea of dressing up the courthouse became one that Rhines enjoyed.
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Glen Rhines prepares for Christmas at the courthouse, 1964.
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A man and his reindeer. Glen Rhines prepares for set up in 1966.
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Santa’s Sleigh makes it to Ithaca with help from Hollis Cooper and Glen Rhines.
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Randall Johnson constructed Santa’s throne for 1960.

With the end of World War II, the lights came on in downtown Ithaca. In 1945, the business district celebrated its first Christmas by using more lights. However, this “lighting up” of downtown Ithaca centered around the way businesses decorated their shops and buildings.

In 1946, with the end of a nationwide coal strike, the last restrictions came off of all the Christmas decorating in Ithaca. Residents in the city were encouraged to enter a home lighting contest from December 21-25. The winner won $75 in cash, and a trophy went to the best-decorated store. The motto for Ithaca that Christmas was, “A wreath on every door and a tree in every window.” The war was over, expectations about conserving light and energy ended, and it was time to return to a normal Gratiot County Christmas.

Three years later, in 1949, the Gratiot County Courthouse officially debuted with “special lighting effects.” These included strings of lights that were fastened from the top of the courthouse and extended down toward Center Street. Santa, sleigh, and his reindeer all sat on top of the building, along with lighted Christmas trees. Each window of the courthouse had either a glowing star or a candle in it. Other trees on the grounds were also lighted. Shoppers downtown also saw designed wreaths on each light pole, and they heard Christmas music playing over the loudspeakers.

Starting in the 1950s, Ithaca encouraged residents to go all out and decorate their homes and lawns at Christmas. Churches also were asked to participate, and those with the most entertaining scenes received recognition in the newspaper. In 1962, The Edwin McGillis family on East Newark Street won first prize and a $25 Savings Bond for their nativity scene, which included over 20 hand-cut and painted figures that they had on their lawn. McGillis told the Gratiot County Herald that he spent over 350 hours on the display.

                Ithaca teacher Randall Johnson helped to bring a memorable addition to Christmas at the courthouse in 1960 when he helped to build Santa’s throne, which sat on the northwest corner of the courthouse lawn. The throne was eight feet high and sat on a decorated platform. A public address system made it possible for people to hear Santa talking to those children who sat on his lap. On Santa’s first night in Ithaca in his new chair, he listened to over 600 children tell him about their Christmas lists. By 1960 the official start to the Christmas season in Ithaca started one night with someone officially flicking on the switch for the lights at the courthouse and downtown.

While all of this brought attention to Ithaca during the holiday season, someone in 1963 became involved with decorating the courthouse in new ways. This person was building superintendent Glen Rhines. His work and leadership helped make the Gratiot County Courthouse a Christmas landmark in the 1960s that people came long distances to see.

Initially, the board of supervisors spearheaded the decoration of the courthouse. In time and under the work done by Glen Rhines,  many people and businesses helped to make the courthouse decorations the most beautiful Christmas sight in the county. Starting in November 1963, Rhines had $100 and used jailhouse labor to set up more than 300 lights above the main entrance, around the main roof, and an arrangement around the bell tower. This early holiday season proved somber in Gratiot County as the nation had been shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the end of November.

As Christmas approached that year, Rhines put up twelve Christmas trees on the roof, as well as smaller ones on the grounds.   Also on the roof, viewers saw Santa Claus and his reindeer headed for the sky, along with seven elves. The area around the former bomb shelter between the courthouse and jail had a manger scene, along with three wise men and camels. Hanging above the bomb shelter was the Star in the East. On each day in Ithaca, new things seemed to be happening as the new Christmas displays went up at the courthouse. Ithaca stores donated strings of light; the local lumber company donated plywood for figures; the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce gave financial support. A Chamber member even donated the Christmas trees. Getting the sleigh (cutter) up on the roof was Glen Rhynes’ most significant challenge, due to its size. Rhynes later remarked that “I don’t care how big it was. I’d have got it (up) there.”

                People also began to learn about the amount of work Rhines put into the displays that he started in 1963, which newspapers labeled as the first elaborate Christmas courthouse display. The life-size figures Rhines used all had to be cut out of plywood with a single keyhole saw. Christmas lights,  dipped in paint, gave off different colors. Large “Merry Christmas” and “Happy, New Year” signs hung above the main courthouse doors.  These signs all had to be hand cut out of scrap roofing metal, and painting the figures became an essential part of the project.  When lights came on at the courthouse in that season, it was the dome that drivers and residents could see from all sides of Ithaca.

Starting in 1964 and proceeding through future Christmas seasons, Glen Rhines worked with decorations from the preceding year while continually adding new ideas. As the displays grew in size and popularity, so did the preparation time they occupied each fall. In 1965, Rhines added nine handmade reindeer, some brightly colored snowmen, over 500 lights, and seventeen decorated Christmas trees. Rhines was also busy as he helped build a very elaborate sleigh for Santa to ride in when he appeared that year in Ithaca. Hollis Cooper of Middleton provided the ponies that pulled the sleigh through Ithaca (complete with the instant antlers that the ponies grew). Santa’s sleigh and ponies would be a regular occurrence in Ithaca each Christmas through the rest of the 1960s.

By 1967, the courthouse started to move away from cutout figures to using plastic figures in the nativity scene. In late November that year, tragedy was averted when Glen Rhines fell 35 feet from the top of the courthouse on Thanksgiving Day. Rhines, while standing on the railing next to the clock, reached out and tried to cut a wire. The wire broke, Rhines fell backward, and he ended up on the railing below him.  Luckily, Rhines suffered no serious injuries – he only damaged his new wristwatch.

 One of the last changes that was made in the 1960s took place in 1969 when the board of supervisors spent $950 for a new nativity scene at the courthouse. Roger Kleinhans of Ithaca added lights to the dome.

For those who think of postwar Ithaca, we remember how the courthouse appeared and how it was associated with the Christmas season in Gratiot County. It was a memorable gift at a significant time in Ithaca and Gratiot County’s history.

Copyright 2019 James M Goodspeed

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