Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fort Wayne's First Christmas Tree

The story of Fort Wayne's first Christmas tree is documented in Bert Griswold's Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, published in 1917, but his source for the story is not known. It may be based more in legend than in fact.

According to the story, Dr. Charles Schmitz, arranged to bringthe first Christmas tree to the city in 1840. A native of Borgloh, Germany in 1809, Schmitz had studied medicine at a medical college in Bohn or Bonn, and then came to America in 1835, settling first in Philadelphia. He arrived in Fort Wayne in 1837 and became a prominent member of the German-American community, serving on the Board of Health, becoming the first president of the Allen County Medical Society, and serving as editor of the German newspaper, Der Deutsche Beobachter von Indiana, under the ownership of Thomas Tigar.

Schmitz was reportedly dismayed to find no tradition of decorating Christmas trees in his new home. The forests of northern Indiana were deciduous, and there were no coniferous evergreen trees native to the area. He had to look outside the area to find a suitable tree. In June of 1840, knowing that it would take time for an evergreen tree to arrive, he made arrangements for a tree to be shipped from Cincinnati on the Wabash & Erie Canal. The tree apparently arrived in December, and Schmitzes placed it in their house on Calhoun Street, next to what was later known as the Noll Building. On Christmas Eve, they decorated it with candles and an assortment of ornaments. Mrs. Schmitz placed their infant daughter in a basket beneath the tree. Then they invited guests to come and view the spectacle, and reportedlty, a number of Indians were among the guests. According to Griswold, "The beautiful tree brought exclamations of delight from the red men, but it is recorded that they found the baby a more lasting object of admiration."

Undoubtedly, the city's growing German population continued to promote the Christmas tree custom throughout the mid-19th century. Virginia (Carnahan) Williams tells a memorable story that she and her sister Clara went with their German maid to services at St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 6 AM on Christmas morning in 1886. There they heard soft organ music and a German choir in the gallery singing, "Unto Us a Child Is Born," and other carols in German. They could smell the scent of the pines on either side of the altar. When they left church the sun was beginning to rise.

Other children of the era remembered walking along Madison Street, where many of St. Paul's parishioners lived, and they marveled at seeing the lighted Christmas trees in every window.

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