Despite pandemic, Elizabethton lights up at Christmas
This year has been unlike any other. The coronavirus pandemic has caused havoc with almost everything, including school, church, eating out, football games, etc. This summer, baseball games were cancelled, the annual drama at Sycamore Shoals was forced to cancel, public swimming pools were closed, and fairs and carnivals were cancelled. Now, it is Thanksgiving and Christmas, and there will be no Christmas parade downtown, and the lighting of the Fraser Fir scheduled for next Saturday evening will be virtual.
But, one thing that doesn’t change are the Christmas lights downtown and on Lynn Mountain.
For several years, Joe Alexander, local businessman, has been keeper of the downtown lights. “We’ve been very fortunate for the support we’ve received from businesses and individuals. Sponsorships have been obtained for the ground fixtures and pole lights. For each pole and fixture, a sign is placed as a commemorative piece. We’ve had several groups and individuals sponsor a pole and have the sign printed with a message, either in memory or in honor of someone,” he noted.
Also, one of the keys has been getting the county and city on board with annual contributions, all of which help with the expense of putting the lights up, taking them down, storing them, and maintaining them.
“All of the pole lights have been refurbished and probably by next Christmas refurbishment of the ground displays will be completed,” said Alexander.
“The lights are a tradition in downtown Elizabethton, and I can’t say enough about the support we receive for this project. From the sponsorships to people just stopping by to chip in funds for the project,” said Alexander.
This year Carter County Bank took over sponsorship of lighting the Fraser fir, which had previously been overseen by the Chamber of Commerce. “Although the ceremony will be virtual this year — Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. — the tree will have all new lights, and will be multi-colored in the holiday tradition instead of the white lights of the past. Also, for the first time, the lights have been placed horizontally around the tree, instead of vertical. The employees of the bank have spent hours screwing the bulbs in,” said Alexander.
He noted that the events in the Covered Bridge Park planned in conjunction with the tree lighting have been canceled due to the coronavirus.
“The lights are a holiday attraction and draw people to the downtown. They add to the town’s festive atmosphere during the Christmas season,” Alexander said.
Although there is a pandemic and some things have had to be changed because of that, Christmas is still just as special and exciting this year as it was in December 1934, when Elizabethton merchants for the first time decorated Elk Avenue and the Monument area with Christmas lights.
The first keeper of the lights was T.J. Rikard, who along with his wife owned Rikard’s Style Shop in downtown Elizabethton.
When the call went out the first week of December, 16 merchants (according to the Elizabethton Star) quickly jumped on the bandwagon to decorate the complete length of Elk Avenue with strings of red and green lights — at least 15 or more strings. The plan, initiated by the Chamber of Commerce, put initial expenditures at $300. The East Tennessee Power Company agreed to install, remove and care for the lights each year.
Among merchants jumping on the bandwagon early were Sterchi Brothers, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney’s, The Vogue, Harville’s, Taylor Drug, S.E. Nelson Jewelers, Ritz Theatre, Elizabethton Hardware, Carriger and Ledford, Gov. Taylor Hotel, Slagle’s, Hathaway Funeral Home, Harry Burgie’s Drug, and the Elizabethton Steam Laundry. (All of the stores are gone with the exception of Burgie Drug and Hathaway Funeral Home, both of which have different owners).
Others joining in the effort were Rikard’s Style Shop, City Drug, Citizens Bank, Bill Shop, Red Store, Goss Furniture, Watson’s, City Market, C.W. Schmitt Jewelers, Jack’s Lunch, Carter Furniture, Texas Studio, Brumit’s Service Station, Perry Bros. Meat Market, Gas Co., Parks-Belk, Watauga Chevrolet, Paty Lumber, East Tennessee Light and Power, Tom Speropulus, Jerry Thomas, Pin Money Shop, J.L. Moore Department Store, Mountain Spring Water Co., and Intermountain Telephone Co.
The strings of lights stretched from building to building across Elk Avenue from the Monument to the intersection with F Street. Also, two strings were placed across Sycamore Street in front of the Bonnie Kate building. Power lines were attached to the strings of lights and the main switch was attached to a light pole at the intersection of Elk Avenue and Sycamore Street.
Rikard, whose idea it was to decorate the downtown with Christmas lights, was selected to turn the lights on, “giving downtown Elizabethton a touch of holiday atmosphere that it never had experienced before.”
Under the direction of Mrs. J. Frank Spires, enough donations were collected in the eastern part of the business district to place colored lights on and near the Monument and to place a Christmas tree in the circle around the Monument.
Among those in that part of the town who contributed to the cause were Elizabethton Steam Laundry (additional subscription), Smith and Chambers, George Edens, George Angel, Matson Folsom, F.H. Anderson, G.D. Hayes, R.L. Bowles, Smith Furniture and Elizabethton Star.
The lighting of the downtown for the Christmas holidays has continued each year — a tradition that has continued for over 80 years and has been expanded with the Merry Christmas greeting atop Lynn Mountain, the Fraser fir lighting, and lights in the historical district, on E Street and Sycamore Streets.
The present decorations, which include the lights mounted on the utility poles, came at the urging of Harvey Anderson, former councilman and Elizabethton School Board member sometime in the late 1990s. Anderson was able to raise $40,000 for the lights, of which the area for the lights was increased to include E Street, parts of Main Street and Sycamore Street, in addition to the displays in the downtown area.
The lights are currently maintained by Charles and Jerry Rotenberry of Twin City. They include over 100 pole lights and 12 ground fixtures.
“I think the Christmas lights, along with the lighted Fraser fir, and especially the Merry Christmas greeting atop Lynn Mountain make our town unique. The Lynn Mountain display is made possible by the Elizabethton Electric System. And, the Elizabethton Parks and Rec Dept. have added to it with lights in the Covered Bridge Park as well as lights in the Covered Bridge and on the Elk Avenue Bridge. I think we have one of the prettiest Christmas towns in the region. We also have some wonderful shops to visit,” said Alexander with a grin and much pride.