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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Firsts in Kansas City

The First Lighted Tree

He was a craftsman; he had been trained in Prussia to carve beautiful creations from the simplest of things. Like many of the freshly-arrived immigrants to the States, Oswald Karl Lux wished to immerse himself in new customs while still holding onto some of those from his homeland.

He was on a mission.

Oswald left his little workshop at the back of his home on Archibald Street in Westport content to follow through with a promise he had made himself. As he scratched his beard, he wrapped his trench coat closer to his body in hopes to shield the bitter cold wind as it gusted straight through his small frame. The cold wasn’t going to stop him – he must continue.

1885 view of Westport Road and Pennsylvania
Missouri Valley Special Collections
The merchants in Westport didn’t have what he was looking for. Two days before Christmas, he had walked the streets, store-by-store, searching and describing what he wanted to purchase. But alas, the stockpiles of items weren’t what he had envisioned. He wanted to bring an authentic German Christmas to his family, especially for the little ones that left Leobschutz before they could recall the town in its seasonal splendor. Oswald knew that for this Christmas, the second they were to celebrate together, had to be special. His family had sacrificed so much, and this Christmas was going to be extraordinary.

He had resolved to mount his horse and tie up his wagon so he could travel three miles north to bustling Kansas City. Perhaps what he was looking for could be found in one of the many stores that had advertised the ability to supply Christmas goods. As he traveled up and down the hills on the main road, he imagined six-year-old Hattie waking up on Christmas morning and rushing to the front of their home to see what Santa Claus had brought her. Oh, and Olga. . . Olga would grab her big sister’s hand and run with her full speed in wonderment to what awaited.

It reminded him of a harsher time in July 1880- just over two years earlier- when three-year-old Hattie had clasped his hand as they boarded the ship from Hamburg to New York alone. It was a decision that most could not even fathom, leaving his pregnant Agnes and seven month old Olga behind in Prussia as he and little Hattie set up a new home in Missouri. That first Christmas in this new country was coated in sadness, because their growing family was an ocean apart. Christmas 1883 was going to be different; now that Richard was born healthy and they were finally together, the Lux family was going to have a proper Christmas together. Their first was much less extravagant- they had no money to spend with so many mouths to feed.

The German immigrants in Kansas City had to have what he was looking for at their shops. Time was running short, but he knew he had to try. Oswald arrived at 15th and Grand and peered up at the sign above the shop. Warneke Baker Company would be his first shot in the city. Their bakery was renowned for their confectionary, dried fruits and trinkets for Christmas trimming. As he peered through the frosted window and spotted several Christmas adornments, including beautifully frosted cakes, he smiled in hope. This place could have what he so desperately craved.

Main St. at 11th cir. 1880
Image supplied by John Dawson
He opened the wooden door and a bell jingled to announce his entrance. Standing behind the counter was a young man dressed in a white apron. The clerk’s eyes brightened as 37-year-old Oswald removed his gloves and his hat from his head.

“Good morning, sir! How may I help you?” the clerk inquired with a growing smile on his face.

Oswald’s heart raced a little quicker when he immediately noticed the clerk had no accent. He tried to form his words, uncomfortable and shy in his demeanor. He had practiced his words so many times before as he had combed all the stores in Westport the day before. Oswald grew a little taller and looked in the young clerk’s direction. “I look for tree. Christmas tree,” Oswald announced in a thick German accent.

The clerk’s eyes widened as he listened to the man’s request. With only a second of hesitation, the clerk threw his pointer finger up into the air excitedly. “Yes! Yes. A tree! I think I have what you’re looking for!”

Oswald grew a little more uncomfortable as he recognized that this young man wouldn’t be able to speak to him in German. However, his animated actions made it easier for Oswald to understand him. The clerk waved Oswald over to the other side of the small store. Reluctantly, Oswald began to walk on the checkered floor and toward where the clerk now stood. He raised his eyes and placed his gloves on the glass counter. Behind it, the clerk proudly stood next to a miniature Christmas tree no taller than eighteen inches. Its delicate branches drooped in sadness. They were weighted down by a few pieces of dried oranges tied with red ribbon on the few sprigs of greenery.

Oswald looked curiously at this small tree. His brow furrowed as he made eye contact with the proud, young clerk looking for another commission before Christmas. His hands rested on his hips as he beamed back at Oswald. Yes, this clerk thought he had this sale in the bag.
A drawing in the Kansas City Star
showcasing Oswald Lux's search
for a tree

“No, no, no…” Oswald shook his head back and forth, “I look for… for… for big tree.”

The clerk crooked his head to the side as he realized that this sale wasn’t going to be as easy as he had thought. “How big are you thinking, sir?” he asked as he sprung his hand up and down at his waist indicate the size.

Oswald threw his arm above his head and proudly responded, “Dis big!”

He had struck out again. As Oswald slowly opened the door to leave Warneke’s, the clerk hollered, “I wish you luck, sir. But I don’t think you’re going to find anything that big here in the city.”

Oswald turned, tipped his hat and nodded to the young clerk as he shut the door behind him. The cold rushed his body as he buried his face closer to his jacket collar and headed toward his horse and wagon. He had to rethink what he was going to do next.

He did try other stores, and reluctantly, he had to admit the clerk was right. There were no tall evergreen trees available in Kansas City for purchase. As he headed south back home to Westport, he was lost in thoughts and defeat. He just couldn’t imagine letting the little ones down on Christmas morning. He had already told them tall tales of Christmases long ago in Prussia- the beauty of a perfectly trimmed evergreen tree brightening up the coldest of winter days. An eighteen-inch tree or smaller was literally all these merchants had, and that wasn’t even close to what he had promised to deliver.

Union Cemetery showing the large evergreens
Courtesy of
As he headed up the hill on the main road back toward home, his eyes shifted to the west at the barren winter landscape. In the distance, he spotted the small grey stones of Union Cemetery. His horse trekked along, and Oswald’s gaze watched as the dots of stones disappeared as enormous evergreen trees hid their sight. They stood out in the distance, the only color in wintertime. He just wished he had a tree like those. . . those branches would hold the weight of wrapped presents and dried fruits.

Those branches. . . Wait. Those branches!

He slapped the reins on the horse’s flank and turned toward the west. As he drew closer to Union Cemetery, he stopped at one of the towering evergreens and took out his pocket knife from his coat. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes; the familiar smell of fresh evergreen enraptured him. Yes, this would work. He can make this work.

Oswald quietly crooked his head toward the large tree and gingerly cut branches off of it. His gloves became sticky from the sap, so he removed them to quicken his task. He gathered the healthiest branches in his reach, bundled them and placed them in his wagon. Excitement overtook him.

He knew now that his skills as a cabinetmaker would soon be at work. He had the greenery, but he needed sturdy branches that would hold up to the weight of all he had envisioned in his mind. As he turned into the town of Westport, he was overcome with another brilliant idea to pull off this massive undertaking. He stopped and purchased a broom and asked the owner of a saloon if he could have one of the empty barrels chucked at the back of his business. He loaded the contents into his wagon and turned toward Archibald Street to his cozy home.

For the next two nights, Oswald worked by candlelight to transform these objects into something beautiful. He removed the head, hoops and rivets to free the curved wooden staves from the barrel. The scent of Kentucky bourbon drifted to his nose and throughout the small shop behind his home. Oswald fastened the staves to the broomstick handle one-by-one, the longest, about fifteen inches, being at the bottom. He used shorter sticks to fashion the top of the tree. Recycling colored tissue, he concealed the wooden staves and carefully covered over the tissue with the sprigs of evergreen acquired near Union Cemetery.

Oswald cautiously walked backward, his eyes concentrating on the project at hand. He put his hand to his mouth and thought about what else he needed to make this makeshift tree something special.

Oswald Karl Lux (1846-1937)
Courtesy of the Lux descendants 
He looked about the small room and spotted the candles that lit his workshop. Of course! The tree needed candlelight to illuminate it. This would be just like what they had at home in Prussia and exactly what he had described to his small children.

Oswald drove nails through the ends of his “tree” and then placed short, fat candles on each nail. He smiled in satisfaction.

After the children were put to bed on Christmas Eve, Mr. Lux quietly carried his creation into his home and mounted it in the front window. Oswald and Agnes silently tied toys, dolls, sweets and apples on each branch. Before the signs of daylight, Oswald quickly lit each of the candles on the tree and impatiently waited for the children to awake from their slumber.

As daylight barely crept through the windows, the children awoke in the instant excitement that comes from anticipation on Christmas morning. The oldest children, Hattie and Olga, jumped out of bed and raced to the doorway into the front room. Standing before them was the most beautiful creation they had ever seen. Glowing even in the early morning, the lighted Christmas tree, standing just three feet tall, was a delight. Their cries of enthusiasm were replaced with awe at the lighted tree.

Before breakfast was finished, the marvel of the tree had drawn small neighborhood children to the streets. Through the frosty front window of the Lux home on Archibald Street in Westport, the children saw the glowing beauty of the largest tree they had ever seen. One-by-one, they called on the Lux family so they could get a closer look at the finest tree they had ever seen.

For over a week after Christmas, the Lux home was the site of continuous activity. The tree’s popularity triggered Oswald to remove it from the front window and onto the street so everyone could stop and see it. Boxes and boxes of candles were used to keep the tree lit, and children returned every day to stare at its splendor.

Two years later, Oswald’s want of purchasing a large tree for his family was no longer an issue. Evergreen trees imported from Michigan became available in Kansas City in 1885.

Yet the first lighted tree in all of Kansas City and Westport would forever be attributed to Oswald Karl Lux, a German immigrant who wished to light up the faces of his small children on that Christmas day in 1883.

The First Electric Christmas Tree Lights

Thirty-two year-old Edwin R. Weeks traveled from his offices at 807 Santa Fe in Kansas City to his residence at 1409 Cherry. With Christmas upon him, he couldn’t wait to arrive home to show his infant daughter, Ruth and his wife, Mary what he had just received by parcel from his friends, Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson.

They had sent him something special to try out in Kansas City.

Edwin Ruthven Weeks (1855-1938)
Five years earlier in 1882, Johnson had put 80 hand-wired red, white and blue bulbs together and decorated his very own tree with them. They had been working for years to perfect this design with hopes of replacing dangerous candles that were used to illuminate trees at the time.

Edwin R. Weeks became close to these pioneers of electricity after circumstances in 1881 led him to be the manager of Kawsmouth Electric Light Company. After working at the Kansas City Journal as a newspaper man and a short stint with the railroads, Weeks’ innovations and natural ability in physics had him pioneering electricity in the city. He had supervised over the first plant in the world to use the Thompson-Houston system (now General Electric).

As the city grew in size, Edwin had been breaking ground on spreading electricity. Before long, he had just shy of four miles of poles carrying electrical currents to the West Bottoms, the Union Avenue business section and Quality Hill. In 1883, he had incorporated the Kansas City Electrical Company, the precursor to Kansas City Power and Light.

The first electric dynamos appeared in a 1917 article
in the Kansas City Star
Oh, the growth of electrical wonders that Edwin had seen! A system built by Thomas Edison himself first lit his office – and another unit was sent to him to light his home at 1409 Cherry.

Weeks tightly tucked the wooden box under his arm as he rushed inside his brick home to greet his wife and daughter. In the front room, his Christmas tree stood, lit by numerous candles. He shouted for Mary and told her to come into the room.

“Wait until you see what has been sent to us!” Edwin exclaimed as he carefully placed the box on a table in the room.

With Ruth in her arms, Mary smiled and played along. “Why, what is this?”

Edwin smiled widely as he turned his attention to prying the lid off the box. He tore through the protective papers and peered inside.

There they were- colored lightbulbs and wiring.

Edison Christmas tree lights (1903-1904)
“This is electrical lighting for a Christmas tree,” Edwin explained as held up one of the bulbs in his hands for his wife to see.

She looked back and forth from the candles on the tree already displayed in their front window to the lightbulb in her husband’s hand. “Are they safe?” she quietly asked.

“Of course they are safe! They have to be safer than these candles!” he beamed.

Without much of an argument in her, Mary watched in silence from the settee as Edwin gingerly screwed each bulb into the wiring. After removing each candle from the tree and cautiously draping the single strand of electric lights on its branches, Edwin leaned down to test this new innovation.

Mary gasped as the room was soon replaced from candlelight into a room of magical color. Edwin turned the lights off around the house and they raced outside to catch a glimpse of the glory from the street.

An early 1900s advertisement for Christmas lights
There it was, beautifully lit in an unbelievable scene of splendor. In that square bay window at 1409 Cherry, the first electrically lit Christmas tree stood proudly for all of Kansas City to see.

The mistrust of electricity throughout the United States continued for years. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland assisted in building confidence in electric tree lighting when the family Christmas tree in the White House was coated in hundreds of electric lightbulbs.

Therefore, the evolution of electric lighting of trees became more and more popular in the 20th Century.

Charles S. Pitrat (1895-1970)
The First Plaza Lights

He had been there when Jesse Clyde Nichols staked out a location in the low creek bottoms to build the first outdoor shopping center in all of America. Nichols’ innovations and creativity had him imagining a nostalgic location that would include architecture that matched the beauty of Seville, Spain. At that time in 1922, Charles S. Pitrat was only a 27-year-old eager to find a place within J.C. Nichols' growing empire.

Within just a few short years, Pitrat had positioned himself as a vital part of the development of the Country Club Plaza. He counted his blessings that Christmas season in 1925 when he stood in the second story entrance of the Suydam Building on Mill Creek Parkway (now J.C. Nichols Parkway). This very building was the first to be finished on the Plaza, and he had helped lease the first tenant. The Suydam Decorating Company on the second floor was the original namesake of this important place.

He had seen the Country Club Plaza emerge from a vision inside of Clyde Nichols’ head and change into a physical location that was slowly building into a significant place. His office in the Tower Building guaranteed he could be nearby if anyone needed anything through development.

The site today of the very first Christmas
lights strung by Pitrat
In those early years, Charles had gone door-to-door and asked merchants to park outside on the streets in front of the two parking garages to help make the area look busy. Business wasn’t booming, and he needed to help find a way to revolutionize it further.

“Merry Christmas,” he shouted as one of the tenants locked up for the night and headed out the door of the Suydam Building. He held onto the small strand of lights in his hand and glanced upward to the cornices of the building.

Yes, this will do just fine, he thought to himself as he climbed a small ladder and got to work.

His father, too, had been a revolutionary in Kansas City when he had opened Kansas City’s first bookstore, Osborne & Pitrat. Maybe that same spark of firsts followed Charles on this very day. But when he climbed that ladder and strung the small strand of lights, he was simply looking to spread some holiday cheer.

The Plaza Lights, 1940
Missouri Valley Special Collections
Yet just three years later after the Plaza Theater had been constructed, the Country Club Plaza would flip the switch on a strand of lights along 47th Street. And by 1929, every single beautifully built and planned building on the Plaza was covered in beautiful, colorful Christmas lights.

Charles S. Pitrat’s simple strand of lights in 1925 on what is now known as the Mill Creek Building transformed the Plaza’s place in history, and each year became grander and grander than the last.

To read another great story about Christmas in Kansas City, check out last year's post here: Christmas History, Cultures and Traditions of Kansas City Settlers

***Merry Christmas from the Santa Fe Trailer! Don't forget to LIKE my Facebook page (search The Santa Fe Trailer) so you don't miss any of these incredible stories. As always, thank you for reading and inspiring me to keep writing about the history of this incredible area. 

*Main image of the Plaza Lights was published at 

*Some fictional details were added to bring these stories alive, yet thorough research was conducted (as always!)

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