On the cold, wintry nights surrounding Christmas 1913, passengers on the Milwaukee train pulling into the grand Union Station in Cedar Rapids were treated to a wonderful sight.
There, in the middle of Greene Square, directly opposite the train depot, was a 50-foot fir tree festooned with hundreds of colored incandescent lights and topped by a huge star.
In early December, several women’s groups had petitioned parks Commissioner Fred Lazell for a Christmas tree similar to the one in New York City. When Lazell presented the idea to the City Council it was met with enthusiasm. The City Council told Lazell that the city would pay any reasonable expense. From there, the Woman’s Club took charge of arranging the festival and was joined by the Ladies Literary Club, Order of the Eastern Star, Coe College Club, D.A.R. and W.R.C. Public contributions were solicited and Garfield Simpson received the first receipt from the city treasurer’s Christmas tree fund. He was quickly followed by many others, guaranteeing that the children of the city would not be disappointed.
Lazell and florist Milo Crozer set out in Crozer’s car for Scotch Grove Nursery to find a suitable tree. The men said there was no tree in the nursery large enough or fine enough to serve the city. Lazell and Crozer persuaded the nursery owner to cut a handsome Norway spruce near the owner’s house. The tree was planted 41 years earlier, at the same time the late Gov. William Larrabee had planted his grove of evergreens at Montauk.
The tree was tied and moved to the railroad track where it was loaded onto two Milwaukee flatcars and transported to Greene Square. Unloading the huge tree and setting it up took a toll. One side was nearly bare after branches had broken off. A contingent was sent back to Scotch Grove Nursery for branches. On Dec. 23, while the women were at the library filling stockings for the children, workmen grafted the branches on to the tree with wire.
According to the Evening Gazette, “Last evening, when enough limbs had been inserted to fill in the barren space, the tree was better than nature had made it.”
Col. W.G. Dows of the Iowa Railway and Light Co. donated the lights which were strung by the Iowa State Electric Co.
The 53rd Regimental Band and the Cedar Rapids Concert Band provided music, along with the Choral Union and the public school glee clubs who performed the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Children gathered at three separate points to march to Greene Square. Carrying colored torches, they were led by members of the musical organizations and entered the park at the same time from different directions. The singers, also carrying torches, followed from their assembly point at Coe College. When everyone was gathered, Coe College’s Department of Music director, Earle G. Killeen, led the singing with a flashlight baton.
Following an address by Mayor Louis Roth, the audience was led in the Lord’s Prayer.
A pavilion in the center of the park was transformed into a candy house where Santa Claus, assisted by city officials, handed out treats to the thousands of children. Couriers were sent through the crowds to find any children who hadn’t received candy.
The Evening Gazette reported on Dec. 26, “The municipal Christmas tree and celebration held in Greene Square (Christmas Eve) proved to be one of the most popular holiday features ever instituted in this city. The weather was all that could be desired and contributed a full share in the success of the undertaking. … All organizations and people philanthropically inclined wanted to have a part in it. In fact, the entire city became active as soon as it was decided to celebrate a municipal Christmas tree.
“Through the efforts of W.C. Parker of this city, division freight and passenger agent of the Milwaukee, advices were received this morning from the general offices of the company to the effect that no freight charges will be made by the company for the carrying of the municipal Christmas tree from Scotch Grove to this city.”
The Christmas celebration was repeated in 1914 and 1915. Des Moines decided to have a municipal Christmas tree in 1915 and began their campaign by using the Cedar Rapids Christmas tree celebration as an example.
The economy was cited as a reason to cancel the municipal Christmas celebration in 1916. By the 1920s, it was back, only to wane again when the tree was vandalized.
In 1949, James D. White, president of the Cedar Rapids Federation of Labor, suggested reviving the observance, He spearheaded plans for a daylong party for children that included a Christmas tree on the May’s Island Plaza and a program with gifts and treats at the Memorial Coliseum. At the same time, the Cedar Rapids Garden Club erected a large, lighted tree in Greene Square.
By the 1970s, May’s Island had the only municipal Christmas tree. Trees were donated by residents of the city, and usually were 25 to 30 feet in height. The succession of trees wasn’t interrupted by the Floods of 2008.
In 2009, concerns about structural damage to the underground parking garage forced a temporary move of the city’s Christmas from the island to First Avenue and First Street NE, near the Tree of Five Seasons.
In 2011, it returned to Greene Square, where it is the centerpiece of the city’s annual Fire and Ice Celebration.
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