It began with the dream of having an “Avenue of the Bells” and grew to become “Belltown USA.”
In the early 1960s, St. Louis, Michigan, was known for its displays of Christmas bells during the Christmas season. No other town or village in Gratiot County had as many red and white Christmas bells on display at Christmas as did St. Louis. The Christmas bells showcased a sense of holiday spirit and community participation for over a decade.
Starting in the early 1960s, the St. Louis City Council encouraged more residents to decorate their homes for Christmas. The council offered a plan where residents received free electricity to display fifty or more lights, put spotlights on three or more outdoor figures, and use at least 500 watts of electricity. This offer did not cause a resident to pay more for their December electrical bill than they did in November. All St. Louis residents had to do was call or write city hall to participate.
In 1961, Dr. C.J. Bender, a chiropractor, school board member, and mayor of St. Louis, suggested that residents create an “Avenue of the Bells” after some neighbors started hanging bells under their shade trees on East Saginaw Street. A total of 48 bells debuted that Christmas, most of which appeared up and down the street. It would be Dr. Bender who had the dream of having St. Louis known for its array of Christmas bells.
The growth of the Christmas bell displays was slow during much of the 1960s. However, by 1969, eight streets in St. Louis had 150 bells, including a cluster of five bells that hung overhead at Mill and Saginaw streets. Suddenly, more people wanted bells – and the supply, which came from Bronners in Frankenmuth – soon sold out. One of the problems was that residents waited too long to order the plastic eighteen-inch bells, which operated with a 100-watt bulb. It seemed that most people failed to plan when orders came out for the bells in the fall.
Regardless, demands for having more Christmas Bells in St. Louis continued to grow. For Christmas 1970, 61 new bells went up due to Girl Scout Troop #208’s work, which distributed order blanks in the city earlier in the fall. When the bells were gone, the City Council told residents to plan for an early order of 100 bells in the fall of 1971.
The bells for that Christmas in 1971 cost $20 each if people purchased in bulk, or $25 apiece. With an October deadline, people could put $5 down and pay the difference upon arrival. The St. Louis City Council purchased another 100 bells, which brought the city’s “bell population” to 450 as the displays now reached out into the Westgate subdivision and up into Orchard Hills.
By Christmas 1972, St. Louis had 500 bells as 80 more bells went up for the holiday season. By this time, residents could observe the display of bells that lined all four corners of the city park. After parking their cars, St. Louis High School basketball fans who sought to attend home games walked past the bells on and along Saginaw Street. The bells, which also lined the park, moved as if they were ringing as high winds and snow blew across the city park on a game night. It seemed that the display of the bells near the high school coincided each year with the start of the Sharks basketball season. At this time, the Christmas Bells also found their way along Washington Avenue (M-46).
By 1973, the St. Louis City Council and the St. Louis Jaycees promoted St. Louis as “Belltown USA.” From August to September, approximately 100 people placed orders for bells. The Jaycees offered to pay $3 toward each bell sold, while the buyer put down $5 and paid the balance when the bells arrived.
Although St. Louis residents continued to display their Christmas bells for many seasons to come, the early to mid-1970s was the high point for the sales. The first Energy Crisis, which came along in 1974 and hit America, causing sharp rises in gasoline and electricity costs, probably affected interest in purchasing and displaying more Christmas bells.
However, because of a visionary like Dr. C.J. Bender, many people would hang their bells outside at Christmas for years to come. What started as an avenue of Christmas bells on Saginaw Street eventually spread across St. Louis, Michigan, making the city a place to see during the holiday season.
Today, the question remains – just how many original bells still exist in St. Louis?
Author’s note – On the evening of December 22, 2021, I made a trip through parts of St. Louis to see how many bells St. Louis still had. Once I entered the city limits from State Road, I immediately saw four bells (1 appeared to be an original). Delaware Street from east to west had five bells (2 originals). I found bells in Orchard Hills (2), Westgate (4 bells – 2 original), and three on M-46 (all in the south window of Kubin’s Furniture). The city park was surrounded by approximately 20 bells (all newer designs), and a nice Christmas tree. So, I counted 38 bells in the city, 13 of them look like the originals. However, my journey did not cover all of St. Louis, and I am sure that there more this Christmas. Look for the bells.
Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed