Ridin' Around, Looking at Christmas Lights

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - by Harmon Jolley
Volunteer State Life Insurance was a point along the Christmas lights tour.  Click to enlarge.
Volunteer State Life Insurance was a point along the Christmas lights tour. Click to enlarge.

“Let’s go ridin’ around, looking at Christmas lights this evening,” was often the suggested plan for December entertainment when I was growing up. The call might come as a result of a visit from extended family or friends. In the days of cheap gasoline and electricity, it didn’t divert much funding from the domestic budget. It was also a way to tour the new subdivisions around town.

Exterior Christmas decorating was once a city-wide contest in Chattanooga. The December 17, 1967 Chattanooga Times reported “Annual Contests for Lighting On.” The Electric Power Board, Electric League of Chattanooga, and thirty-three garden clubs sponsored the competition that must have been highly profitable for the NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturers Assocation) Electric Corporation.

Garden clubs were once popular organizations, with many neighborhoods participating in them. During the rest of the year, these civic groups worked hard to beautify both small and large areas where they lived. For instance, the May 17, 1931 Chattanooga Times contained photo coverage of the work of the Cameron Hill Garden Club to build a rock garden near the old fire hall on West Sixth Street. As Christmas approached, the garden clubs began planning how their communities would highlight homes and street corners.

Looking over the list of thirty-three entrants in the 1967 contest, I recognized several that my family visited. Some were relatively new subdivisions of the Brainerd and Eastdale area, including Indian Hills, Pinoak, and Woodmore. Others, such as Forest Plaza and Cloverdale, were new addresses in Hixson.

The decorations were more than just thousands of colored lights. There were displays crafted from plywood, and then painted or covered with tinsel. Quite a few carpenters had obviously spent a lot of time working with jigsaws and hammers. Some exhibits garnered a few “ooh, look there”s from my mother, grandmother, or aunt. I recall that my uncle, however, always enjoyed pointing out “There are a lot of families named Noel in this subdivision.

On the way back home, we might take a side trip through downtown to see more lights. Brightly illuminated strands of lights were draped across Market Street. Animated figures were on display in the windows of the Electric Power Board, Loveman’s, and Miller Brothers. Provident and Interstate insurance companies decorated their buildings. Hamilton National Bank put a real Christmas tree atop its building. Volunteer State Life combined red strands of lights with its usual green-lettered sign, and put a bright white light atop the flag pole.

In the fall of 1973, the energy crisis put a sudden damper on the nation’s Christmas lighting. The November 10, 1973 Chattanooga Times reported “Dimouts Planned in State Cities.” Locally, the Chattanooga Retail Merchants Association said that there would be no downtown lighting. Interstate Life canceled its Christmas tree lighting.

Eventually, the holiday illumination returned to homes and to businesses. However, the number of garden clubs declined as more women moved into the labor force. Some neighborhoods gained notoriety for their megawatts of Christmas lighting that attracted sight-seekers and accompanying traffic gridlock. The lighting competitions, however, have never regained their former prominence.
If you have memories of the Christmas lighting competitions, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

Merry Christmas and Happy 2010 to all readers!


James County Historical Society Meeting is November 7

The next James County Historical Society meeting will be Sunday, November 7 at 2:30pm at the Ooltewah United Methodist Church. The program will be about the history of Ooltewah Methodist Church and be presented by a long time member, Steve Wolfe.  If you have any thing that you would like to contribute about this church or another church, please feel free to do so. ... (click for more)

History Center's Walking Tour of Fort Wood is October 28

As a part of the Chattanooga History Center’s Director’s Series , Dr. Daryl Black will lead a walking tour of the historic Ford Wood neighborhood.   The tour will be Tuesday, October 28 starting at 5:30pm.   Registered participants will meet at the corner of Oak and Palmetto streets.   The fee is $10 for the general public or $5 for Chattanooga History Center ... (click for more)

Additions And Improvements At Camp Jordan Arena Coming Soon

Additions and improvements are coming to Camp Jordan Arena in the near future. At the Thursday night meeting of the East Ridge city council, approval was given for buying new playground equipment. It will come from Gametime, a locally-based company. The VP of Marketing lives in East Ridge and made a proposal to set up the playground at Camp Jordan so his company could use it for ... (click for more)

Tribute Service For Luther Masingill Held At Historic Engel Stadium

It took a place as big as historic Engel Stadium for Chattanooga to say goodbye to their beloved Luther. Hundreds came Thursday afternoon to pay tribute to Luther Masingill who died early Monday morning after a radio career that spanned an amazing 74 years. It was clear from all who spoke that he was considered not only a radio personality, but also a role model. One after ... (click for more)

Not Everything Has Been Done To Save Hutcheson

I am a resident of Walker County and I have a personal belief that a hospital ranks equal to other basic services a community should offer (like police, fire, emergency services, school systems, government, etc.). I am not privy to all the management and financial conundrums concerning the feasibility of maintaining and growing Hutcheson, and as a private citizen I don’t believe ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: A Veterinarian’s Horse Sense

I suspect you’ve heard by now that a doctor in New York City, who volunteers with “Doctors Without Borders,” just got back from the African nation of Guinea on October 17 – last Friday – and on Thursday tested positive for the deadly Ebola virus. Luckily, he came in actual contact with only a few people but he reportedly rode a subway, took a taxi, went on a three-mile run and ... (click for more)