A Groovy Little Christmas Turn on, Tune in to 1950s, '60S Aluminum Trees at McHenry County Museum

Article excerpt

Byline: Elizabeth Harmon Daily Herald Correspondent

If you think Christmas gets a little over the top these days, take a look at what they were up to in the 1960s.

"What were they thinking!" is what you'll be likely to think of an exhibit of more than 30 aluminum Christmas trees, circa late 1950s through the 1960s. They're displayed in all their kitschy splendor at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum through Dec. 14.

Dave Harms calls it "my forest of aluminum trees." Then adds, "What other time in American history could you have anything like this?"

Well, yes, it was the era that brought us the Pink Panther, vinyl go-go boots and neon-colored lava lamps.

But Christmas trees?

"It's a hoot," says Nancy Fike, museum executive director, of the exhibit.

Here's a sampling of what you'll see:

- The tree with light sockets stuck into the ends of its branches. The tree is aluminum, which you'd think could have presented an electrocution problem when it was lighted up. Apparently it didn't - though Harms says its popularity only lasted a couple of years.

- The silver tree with its peacock-blue tips, not to be outdone by the silver-and-powder-blue tree with the pom-poms on the end of its branches.

- And don't miss the one with the loopy needles: forest green on one side and white on the other. "It's just goofy," says Harms.

- There even is a ... gulp ... pink tree. "It's a good reflection of the era," Harms says.

Why, might you ask, would a man who makes his living in the nursery business be captivated by metallic Christmas trees? Harms is the owner of D. Hill Nursery in Union, and he doesn't see a conflict.

"I've always loved Christmas, the lights, the spectacle," said the Crystal Lake resident, who also collects Christmas lights and decorations dating back to the 1800s.

Growing up in the 1960s, Harms says he saw silver aluminum trees in stores and friends' homes, though his family always decorated a live tree. Several years ago at a flea market, a metallic tree caught his eye.

"There was an aluminum tree set up outdoors and when the sun hit it, the light off the aluminum just seemed to dance," he said. "I thought, 'This could be fun.'"

Aluminum Christmas trees debuted around 1958 and were manufactured by the millions until the 1970s back-to-nature trend pushed them out of style, Harms says.

One of the largest producers was the Aluminum Specialty Co. of Manitowoc, Wis., which gave the town its claim to fame as the "Aluminum Christmas Tree Capital of the World."

As if the aluminum Christmas trees weren't enough, Harms includes accessories that go with them in his collection.

He's got color wheels, which shine various colors on the aluminum trees. These revolving electric gizmos change the trees' silver branches to red, blue, green or gold in constant rotation.

And he's got two unusual illuminated molded-plastic statues, a Santa and a snowman.

Harms says that anyone growing up in the Chicago area in the 1960s will remember that the statues were given as shopping incentives by the Polk Bros., the TV and appliance retailer.

"When you bought a big appliance, you got a jolly Santa or snowman," he said. …