An Evergreen Christmas

December 22nd, 2011by Jill AustinFiled under: Stories

In Chicago, thoughts of the holiday season often turn to historic public traditions, such as the arrival of Great Lakes schooners known as “Christmas tree ships.”

Shopping for the perfect tree on South Water Street, 1909. DN-0006993

As early as the 1850s, Chicago residents celebrated Christmas by decorating freshly cut pine trees—a custom honoring the cycle of life that originated in Germany and other European homelands of many American newcomers. In this burgeoning urban environment, a tree of perfect proportions, reasonable size (to accommodate smaller city dwellings), and fragrance may have been difficult to come by.

Pine trees brought to a street corner from the docks, c. 1904. DN-0000912

Ever entrepreneurial, a number of fishermen and their families used their schooners to import trees from the heavily wooded lands of Northern Michigan, down Lake Michigan to Chicago, often docking along the Chicago River at North Clark Street and setting up temporary shops on sidewalks and street corners all over town.

At the turn of the 20th century, one boat-based tree merchant emerged as the best-known in the business: Captain Herman “Christmas Tree” Scheunemann’s arrival into town on the Rouse Simmons officially launched the holiday season. Because the German captain helped make the season bright for so many Chicagoans, he also went by the moniker “Santa Claus.” When his ship docked, overflowing with trees, it was officially Christmastime in Chicago, and children knew they did not have long to wait for the morning of December 25.

Captain Herman “Christmas Tree” Scheunemann, center, and associates docked at the Clark Street Bridge, early 1900s. DN-0006926

The Rouse Simmons, the “Santa Claus Ship,” docked along the Chicago River, 1909. DN-0006954

In 1912, the Rouse Simmons failed to arrive. “Santa Claus” Scheunemann sadly died in the shipwreck, but his wife carried on the family’s business and beloved tradition through the decade. Their daughters, Elsie, Hazel, Pearl, also continued in their father’s footsteps: opening their own Christmas tree business in the 1930s, importing trees from northern parts via the railroad.

Elsie Scheunemann Roberts arranges trees for sale, c. 1928. DN-0086491

Scheunemann’s twin daughters, Hazel and Pearl, flirt with the camera, c. 1917. DN-0069265

Warm wishes from CHM for a happy holiday season!

> See more holiday images from our photo collection

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