Along the Heritage Trail

Electrifying Christmas

in downtown Fort Wayne

By Tom Castaldi
How many electric light bulbs does it take to light up the Christmas spirit? For some of us it takes just one. Maybe that’s the reason 24,717 colorful lights can get an entire community up and running headlong into the Christmas spirit when the Wolf and Dessauer’s Santa and Reindeer display is energized on the PNC Bank building wall, casting a glow over old Transfer Corner.

The story has been told of how some wonderful people including G. Irving Latz, of Wolf & Dessauer department store, and Frank Dunigan, of the Brinkman Corporation, first hatched the idea; how Isabel Wilkerson Parker sketched out the concept; how Leslie Pope transferred it to its actual size; and how the employees at Brinkman produced the unique Christmas display. We’ve heard, too, the story of how the display was stored away and forgotten, gradually falling into a state of disrepair; how the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 305 with the Iron Workers Local 147 combined their time and talents with the resources of Northeastern Indiana Electrical Contractors Association and the Chamber of Commerce (along with untold numbers of interested businesses and citizens) to refurbish the display, making it the reality we can enjoy in our day.

The intersection of Main and Calhoun streets, where holiday crowds gather to watch the lighting of the Santa display, is at a site that has long attracted people. For many years it was known as Turntable Corner and later Transfer Corner because a rotating track had been placed in the street to direct departing trolleys onto assigned outbound routes.  Between the 1890s and the 1960s, this corner was where all the trolleys and later buses converged from a network of routes. As horse-drawn street trolleys rolling on rails gave way to the electrified trolley buses in 1892, it has remained an energized place. During
1890s, Marmaduke Marcellus Slattery, an inventor working for Jenney Electric Company, was experimenting with battery-powered trolleys. Although he was a forward-thinking fellow tinkering with a technology whose time was yet to come, his experience was a little like Noah’s last dove sent from the Ark that, full of energy, never came back from somewhere in the “out there.” However, when Slattery sent his trial trolley out on a test run full of hope and vim, the battery drained of energy and the car failed to return. 

True, many towns and cities have established favorite customs such as parades, festive window displays, church pageants, school plays, orchestral performances and the like, but Fort Wayne has a long-treasured tradition that extends back to the days of the Wolf and Dessauer Department Store when window displays drew holiday seekers and shoppers from miles around.  Those nostalgic days for the older generation may be gone; however, they have been replaced by a symbol of the season that can light up the legacy of those exciting November and December animated store windows.  Another of the remaining artifacts is the gigantic wreath, also festooned with lights just like Santa Claus, in November placed nearby on the north side of Fort Wayne’s signature high-rise building. But, it’s Santa Claus that gets the nod with his twinkling, blinking blue eye announcing to the thousands in the streets below that the Christmas season in the Three River’s region has officially begun.

Best of all, it is very nice watching the eyes of children of all ages sparkle.  Once Santa and his reindeer cast their radiance over the town, it sparks a tour of a veritable festival of Christmas trees, gingerbread houses and model holiday villages — with music in the air all over town.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Fri, 12/14/2012 - 2:58 pm
Last updated: Mon, 01/07/2013 - 4:32 pm