We Remember “St. Louis and the Story of the Bells, 1961-1973”

A key leader and visionary of the St. Louis Christmas bell displays was Dr. C. J. Bender. During Christmas 1969 Bender helped his neighbor, Mrs. Emma Frost, to hang her Christmas bell. At that time, it was estimated that St. Louis had 150 bells.
A look down a St. Louis street (probably Delaware Street) in early December 1971. The bell population was said to number 300.
Christmas bells line Saginaw Street at Christmas 1972.

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

“We Remember Pearl Harbor and Gratiot County at Eighty”

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, devastated the American naval fleet and led the United States directly into World War II.

The following article first appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in December 2018.

Eighty years ago on December 4, 1941, it was a “Window Night” in Gratiot County, which marked the start of the Christmas shopping season in the towns of St. Louis, Alma, and Ithaca. Businesses stayed open late with lighted store windows.  That weekend at the Strand Theater in Alma, viewers watched a musical movie entitled “Chocolate Soldier.” Over at St. Louis, the Boy Scouts helped the national defense effort by hosting a paper drive.  A representative from the Public Works Reserves explained to the St. Louis City Council how they could eventually adjust from wartime to a peacetime economy. These events all took place in Gratiot County just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After December 7, the county, like the rest of America, was never the same.

                As news of the attack arrived that Sunday, “general indignation” best described residents as they discussed what they had learned. Within hours of the attack, a previously scheduled group of 46 selective service men left for induction at Fort Custer near Battle Creek. Starting December 8, the telephone at the draft office in Alma rang repeatedly. Men who had previously changed their addresses now notified the office about how they could be found to join the military. Some men above the age of 28, who had been previously excluded from selective service because they were too old, now wanted to know how to enlist. In the first wave of men who immediately volunteered through the Alma office, fifteen joined the Navy, twelve went into the Army, while others headed to Lansing and Saginaw to enlist there. The Gratiot County Red Cross announced the week after the attack that the county needed to raise $5,100 for the national fund. Women wanted to sew and knit for soldiers and servicemen at the Alma Red Cross office.

  Local families worried about the fate of their sons in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. One of these involved Mervin DeMott of Pompeii, who was stationed aboard the US Dunlap. Within a week of the attack, DeMott wrote to inform his family that he was safe but he could not say more. Also, his Christmas presents had been mailed home. Marine Corporal Dale L. Peters of Breckenridge was stationed at Wake Island during the Japanese attack, along with former Ithaca resident Private Charles D. Sagash, who was at Corregidor.

                Gratiot County readied itself throughout December. Leonard and Mid-West Refineries hired extra guards and put up fences around their plants to protect against sabotage. For further protection, the companies required fingerprints and photo identification buttons for employees. The Gratiot County clerk announced a huge demand of birth certificates took place in Ithaca because those wanting work in industrial plants needed one in order to apply for a job. Amateur short wave radio operators in the county had their licenses suspended for fear of sending messages to the enemy. County firemen underwent defense training for handling bombs and volunteers throughout the county learned how to provide basic Red Cross first aid. Lobdell Emory announced that it had received subcontracts for the defense effort, but for security concerns could not acknowledge exactly what it would be producing.  

                As December ended, citizens continued united in their response to the Pearl Harbor attack. The St. Louis City Council purchased $20,000 in Defense Bonds. In Alma, twenty county men quickly joined the National Guard Unit. By Christmas, one of the first painted “V” for Victory Signs appeared in the  east window of the Alma Main Cafe.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed

We Remember 1971: The End of the Seaver Hotel in Ithaca

The Seaver Hotel in Ithaca, Michigan as it looked in the late fall of 1971.
It was a cold day in early January 1972 – but many curious and serious bidders sought to claim a piece of the Seaver Hotel.
“In came the bidders.” Auctioneer Joe Helman prepares to sell off the items to the highest bidder from inside the Seaver Hotel.

Author’s note: This article first appeared in the November 11, 2021 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.

Fifty years ago in Ithaca, a landmark, known for its “Down on the Farm” chicken dinners, closed. Owners Gale and Mildred Irwin sold the Seaver Hotel ending decades of operating in Gratiot County.

The hotel’s history went back to 1890 when it opened under Joseph Seaver, an Ithaca businessman. Before World War I, a room could be rented for two dollars a week. In 1943, the Irwin’s purchased the Seaver Hotel, and it became a popular travel destination with thirty rooms and its famous chicken dinners. The hotel also became a place where several businesses got started in Ithaca.  Dick’s Studio began its business in the basement shortly after World War II. At other times, a railway office and an insurance agency had offices inside the hotel. Several barbers worked in a room on the first floor over the years. Tony Sanchez first opened his shoe repair shop in the hotel, which was the last outside business in the hotel.  

A surprising bit of news became public on November 2, 1971, when the Ithaca City Council announced the purchase of the Seaver Hotel for $35,000 as part of an urban renewal project. No tax monies were used as money came from the Gibbs Memorial Savings Account, a source of funds given to the city by Norton and Laura Gibbs in 1958. To further promote the deal, the city council promised residents that any future funds obtained from the sale of the hotel and lot would go back into the Gibbs account.

For the Irwin’s, it was a time to sell. Gale Irwin suffered from health problems, which ended the offering of chicken dinners and forced the Irwin’s to only rent rooms. For Ithaca, the purchase of the hotel meant it had a lot that measured 99 x 165 feet which was only a short walk from the new city hall and an anticipated new city library.

 The Irwin’s faced a July 1972 deadline for closure, but first, there had to be an auction sale to dispose of the many items in the hotel. It turned out to be a big one.  On a cold day,  January 21, 1972, a capacity crowd came out as auctioneer Joe Helman sold off the hotel’s furnishings.   People eagerly bid on items, and soon everything inside was gone.

Clearing the lot, removing the Seaver Hotel, proved to take a bit longer. The city council authorized city manager Lloyd Peters to raze the building, level, and fill in what had been the basement as soon as the weather permitted. By January 1973, a picket fence encircled what remained of the first floor, which became a target for graffiti.  However, a month later, the hotel’s final remains were cleaned up and gone.

The hotel’s sign stayed, existing as the Chamber of Commerce’s bulletin board. The sign reminded people of events like voting in the state primary elections and the coming of a new downtown mall. On March 23, 1973, Gale Irwin was injured in an accident on U.S. 27. Irwin, a World War I veteran, passed away three days later.

A city parking lot now sits on the southwest corner of Center and Pine streets in Ithaca. Today, the lot hosts seasonal events and the farmers market, which takes place under a newly built pavilion. The sale and dismantling of the Seaver Hotel starting in late 1971 officially ended a business from Ithaca’s past.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed