MANITOWOC, Wisconsin — The streets of downtown Manitowoc, Wisconsin, are dressed in their holiday best. Lampposts are draped in greenery, and ornaments hang like sparkly earrings. All along Eighth Street, the windows of businesses like the Hearty Olive, Heart & Homestead, Heavy Pedal Bicycles and Susan's Second Style sparkle with a seasonal symbol that's near and dear to Manitowoc's heart: the Evergleam aluminum Christmas tree.
This artificial tree, in shimmering colors of green and silver, pink and gold, is considered by some to be a work of Space Age art. It was created and manufactured 60 years ago by Aluminum Specialty Co., right here in Manitowoc, which sits on the shore of Lake Michigan about 80 miles north of Milwaukee. For those who want to party like it's 1959, Evergleams on Eighth is a chance to peep in the windows of 30-plus businesses and see the many incarnations of the Jetsons-like tree, which launched a national craze when it hit stores.
Two years ago, just before Christmas, a contingent of my family made a trip to Manitowoc. My mom flew up from Texas; Aunt Jo Anne and cousin Liz traveled from Missouri; and I drove with my sister, Kim, and her boys, Simon and Louie, from Chicago. We wanted to see the trees, but it was more than that. See, my grandfather, Thomas Gannon (we grandkids called him Tag, for his initials), played a part in the Evergleam creation story. He worked at Aluminum Specialty Co., and he's the one who brought the idea of manufacturing the tree en masse to the engineers and sales team, believing it could be a Christmas sensation. He was right.
The Evergleam was produced for 12 years before being relegated to basements and attics everywhere. But in the past 15 years, the aluminum tree has seen a resurgence, with some models selling for hundredson eBay. Curious to know more, I'd been researching its history. With the Manitowoc pilgrimage, I hoped to learn more about Tag's legacy and connect with my family tree — both real and aluminum.
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The year was 1958. My grandfather, who was the vice president of toy sales at Aluminum Specialty Co., was presented with an opportunity that would become one of the most interesting experiences of his career. So much so that he included it in a brief autobiography he wrote for the family. "In December of 1958, Aluminum Specialty executives entertained the executives of Butler Brothers (the wholesale arm of the Ben Franklin stores) at the annual Christmas luncheon. During the course of that luncheon, Harold Kamp, the buyer, told me about an artificial Christmas tree. It was made of aluminum foil and he had recently seen it at a department store. He thought it had great sales potential, but the box was so large they could neither stock them nor fit them into the customer's car. He wanted me to take a branch home and see if we could re-engineer it so that Ben Franklin could buy it."
The challenge was accepted. Two engineers at the company — Richard Thomsen and Wes Martin — were able to design a tree that was easy to assemble and store. It consisted of a simple stand and a central "trunk" pole with holes drilled in it to hold the removable branches, which were covered in sparkly aluminum "needles." Betting on its success, working 24 hours a day, the company created enough trees to fill a warehouse in time for Christmas 1959. It rocketed off the shelves of Montgomery Ward, Ben Franklin and Woolworths, selling for $5 to $25. In years to come, the company created Evergleams in various colors and models, devising accessories such as color wheels that shined different hues on the boughs. It sold more than a million trees and inspired something like 40 imitators.
In the mid- to late 1960s, sales of the Evergleam declined and in 1971, production stopped.
In 2004, there was a resurgence in the tree's popularity, thanks to the book "Seasons Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree," by two Manitowoc natives, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, who collected trees from rummage sales and created forests in their Manitowoc studio, Neo-Post-Now Gallery. The book brought the tree back into the seasonal conversation, and into my family's conversation. I remember my grandfather agreed to a couple of interviews about the tree before he died in 2005, and he was amused by its rebirth. I have to imagine he'd be floored to see that it's since become a collector's item, with some models selling on eBay for upward of $700.
It is those collectors, in fact, who make Evergleams on Eighth a reality. Two Manitowoc natives loan out their trees for the displays each year. And it was another collector who captured my interest in learning more about the Evergleam.
A man named Theron Georges contacted me because he was working on a book about the history of the tree and wanted to interview some of my family members. (He's since published two books, "The Wonderful World of Evergleam" and the 60th-anniversary edition, "The Evergleam Book"; he's also showcasing his own tree collection this year in Houston, where he lives, in "Space Age Christmas Trees: The Exhibit," at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum through Jan. 3.)
During one of our conversations, he described the trees with so much love and admiration, it was downright poetic. "These aluminum Christmas trees are so much more than inanimate objects made of steel and aluminum winding. They're like people. They have their own personalities, their own quirks, their own looks, their own stories," he said. "One of the things I love so much about collecting them and setting them up is I always wonder about what people originally owned them, and how many joyous and happy Decembers were spent with this tree in a picture window, at the center of a family gathering."
I told Georges that my family was headed to Manitowoc to see the trees and asked if he'd like to meet there. Not only did he agree to meet — he went on to organize a special trolley tour for us, filled with people he'd been interviewing, some of whom worked with my grandfather.
It was heartwarming hearing their memories on the trolley. Jerry Waak, a former sales manager with Aluminum Specialty, recalled that people laughed at the concept of a tree made of aluminum, but there was a genius to the design. "You didn't need to struggle with lights. You didn't have to have a college degree to put it together," he says.
I asked Thomsen, who was the head of the engineering department, if, when the tree was created, he ever thought it would be around nearly 60 years later. "Yes, I did," he said. "My kids told me that it would be."
Former factory worker Ginger Baryenbruch reminisced about working the overnight shift. She and her co-workers used to sing a song to the tune (sort of) of "The Glow-Worm"to stay awake as they used hot glue to attach aluminum to the branches:
"We are the girls of the specialty,
"We specialize in Christmas trees,
"We can cut 'em, we can wind 'em
"We can pack 'em, we can bind 'em
"We stay up all through the night
"To make your Christmas gay and bright
"We are the girls of the specialty
"We make Christmas trees!"
And my mom and aunt got to talking about their own memories of growing up in Manitowoc. Their home had many Evergleams: a pink one in the dining room decorated with angels; a gold one in the basement with apples; one towering in the living room at seven or eight feet tall; and a two-foot-tall tree they took into their school classroom every year.
My aunt loved the trees because she could feel her father's pride shine through them. My mom would have preferred a real tree, with an evergreen scent, and recalls telling her father just that. "I was told if I wanted something that smelled like pine, they had it in a can," she recalled with a wry laugh.
It was also smack-dab in the middle of the Space Age craze, which began Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, which happened to be made of aluminum. It could only have strengthened Manitowoc's embrace of that Space Age when, in 1962, a chunk of Sputnik IV crashed right into the streets of the downtown. (The city commemorates it each year with Sputnikfest.)