70 years as the Christmas City of the High Plains
Cathy Albert took a phone call earlier this year from a saleswoman wanting to supply the director of travel and tourism for WaKeeney, Kansas, with new Christmas decorations. Albert politely told the caller she didn’t need any, but the salesperson pressed on, asking when she last purchased ornaments for the town’s outdoor seasonal décor.
“The ones that we’re using were made in 1950,” Albert told her. With that, the salesperson instantly realized she couldn’t offer 2020-built replacements for handcrafted ornaments that are part of this western Kansas town’s history.
Holding on to tradition while modernizing where necessary is what sets WaKeeney apart at the holidays, Albert says. No other town claims the title of Christmas City of the High Plains, a declaration that started in 1950 when local businesses joined together to turn downtown into a holiday showplace, considered one of the largest Christmas displays between Kansas City and Denver.
The Christmas City of the High Plains concept turns 70 this year. As always, it kicks off the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28 this year, with a day full of activities and then the tree, lights, decorations and the North Pole pocket park stay on display through New Year’s Day.
How You Become a Christmas City
Art Keraus spent most of the last two years of the 1940s working on what was then a project to drum up business in downtown WaKeeney. A new permanent interpretive display was installed downtown this year to share the history of Christmas City of the High Plains, and here’s what visitors will read:
The idea was born in 1948 by two local businessmen. Art Keraus, the owner of Keraus Hardware, was “a man who could build anything.” His fellow businessman, J.H. “Jake” Heckman, was the local banker and a talented artist. Together these two men masterminded the holiday display, which was designed and built in the basement of Keraus Hardware. The two men spent hours in the basement of the hardware store making sure that the decorations were just right. Many local businessmen and the entire community helped build and erect the holiday decorations.
The display was first lit in 1950, and more decorations were added each year until 1956, when they announced that the project “had reached its peak.” They felt that the display was “nearing perfection.”
The centerpiece was their 40-foot tree framework designed to have fresh pine greenery added each year to create a massive custom community tree. Besides being shortened to 35 feet after a driver collided with it one year, the tree remains the same.
Fresh greenery arrived from Michigan this year and city staff assembled it on the framework. Each year, in the days leading up to the lighting ceremony, city employees get help from crews and bucket trucks supplied by Western Cooperative Electric and other area utility companies. Ron Aschenbrenner, Western’s line superintendent, sends one bucket truck with a four-man crew to help with the tree and another truck with two linemen to help hang lights.
The tree sits in the middle of the main intersection of downtown beneath a canopy of blue string lights. The tree is covered with 2,000 lights and topped with four 5-foot ivory stars.
A four-square block area around the tree is draped with garland and lights, and those handcrafted decorations from the 1950s hang from the garland spanning the streets. A wreath in the middle, bells on each side and stars on the poles. They are repainted and carefully repaired to keep them in working order.
WaKeeney added to the display in the 1990s, outlining all downtown buildings in white lights. Those perimeter lights had to be replaced after a destructive 2017 hail storm, so they raised funds from the community and started installing modern LED color-changing lights in 2018. The lights on the historic courthouse were finished this fall, making 2020 the first time since the storm that all perimeter lights are restored.
‘Too Lit To Quit’
This year’s theme – “Too Lit To Quit” – is nod to the light display’s longevity and was chosen before COVID-19 emerged. The sentiment seems even more appropriate as events and festivities have had to be reevaluated to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Activities like caroling and seeing Santa on the day of the lighting ceremony were being evaluated right up to Nov. 28, but the good news is there’s more than a month to enjoy the tree, lights and other holiday features on your own time and when you’re able to stay distanced from other groups.
North Pole Park, a pocket park in a once-vacant lot just south of the tree, offers a great photo op any time of year. There’s an oversized mailbox where you can leave a letter for Santa, cutouts to pose behind, a Christmas mural painted on a brick wall and an all-new, wood-frame Santa house sitting behind a candy cane fence.
“Also new this year, we installed a 12-foot-by-12-foot photograph of the tree that won our photo contest in 2018,” Albert says. “It’s really hard to describe to people who have not been here in December what to expect, so this photo will show what it looks like to people who come through WaKeeney when it’s the middle of summer and 100 degrees outside.”
Across from the North Pole, visitors can have a meal at Western Kansas Saloon & Grill, which now occupies the 1925 Keraus Hardware building. A 30-foot decorated Christmas tree is right inside its entrance year-round, and the menu shares the building history and its part in launching Christmas City of the High Plains.
There’s also an old-fashioned soda fountain at the pharmacy a few doors down on Main Street.
The Trego County Historical Society Museum has a special 70th anniversary exhibition through the end of the year. “Timeless Holiday Tradition” has displays on the history of the tree, replicas of the tree and ornaments, photographs through the years and memories shared by locals. There are also 70 trees or tree symbols throughout the museum, which is open Tuesday through Friday afternoons, Tuesday and Friday mornings and on weekends by appointment. There is no admission fee, though donations are accepted. Call in advance to confirm hours.
Albert also suggests out-of-towners coming to see the lights can drive the 60-mile Smoky Valley Scenic Byway during day, then stay to see the lights and have supper in town.
In years past, the town of less than 2,000 would see extra traffic during the final month of the year: Besides current residents, there are holiday travelers stopping off the highways along with past residents bringing their families to experience the tradition they grew up with.
Aschenbrenner, who has worked for Western for two decades, grew up going to the lighting ceremony with his family. Now 47 years old, he’s taken his own kids to see Santa there and make memories.
“Now that I’m older, the thing that’s really cool is the whole community gathering around the tree to sing Christmas carols,” he said. “We go every year, and family who now live out of town will come back to attend since it’s the same weekend as Thanksgiving. It’s tradition in WaKeeney, something people look forward to.”