Town Leads Aluminum Christmas Tree Revival

Manitowoc truly reflects the spirit of the season.

The quaint town on the shores of Lake Michigan is known for its snow-covered sidewalks, storybook downtown -- and sparkling aluminum Christmas trees. The tinsel Tannenbaums glisten in the window of the LaDeDa shop, and catch the glow of passing headlights at the Tweedle Brothers book store.

"Manitowoc was put on the map nationally through this tree," says Jerry Waak, who once ran the sales force at the Aluminum Specialty Company. The downtown factory closed years ago.

In the 1960s and 70s, Waak estimates he sold millions of aluminum trees, but for nowhere near the prices they command now. On eBay, a rare pink 7-footer recently sold for more than $3,600.

"We used to sell those trees for $11.25 wholesale, $25 retail," says Waak shaking his head. "I wish I had a lot more trees."

What some regard as tacky relics of Christmas past are now collector's items.

Barbara Bundy Yost paid $800 on eBay for a 6-foot pink tree last year.

As she inserts each of the dozens of tinsel-covered branches into the foil-coated dowel "trunk," the tree begins to take shape.

"It's glamorous, kind of ... in a kitschy way," she says, wiggling in the last of the branches.

For Bundy Yost, the tree reminds her of one that her grandmother had in her living room. "It makes me think of her, and that time, that era, and I think the tree represents a simpler time."

A 'Beautiful, Ostentatious Ornament'

At that time, the Peanuts gang both immortalized and satirized the aluminum tree.

In "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Lucy tells Charlie Brown to " get the biggest aluminum tree you can find -- maybe paint it pink."

Photographers Julie Lindemann and John Shimon also preserved the tree for history in their book, "Season's Gleamings." Julie's aunt worked at the factory that made the Evergleam Christmas trees.

"They were this beautiful ostentatious ornament that sort of glamorized all that humans could do. We could make a tree better than nature," says Lindemann.

Eventually, the aluminum trees lost their luster as the sparkling promise of the space age gave way to the realities of Vietnam.

"The trees started to not resonate right," says Lindemann, "They were glittery. They seemed shallow."

So, many of them ended up in the trash.

Not Just Another Tree

And then -- collectors like Lisa Genske started buying them on eBay.

She describes the moment she won her pink tree: "My hands were shaking when I pushed the button for the final bid and when I won it, I screamed. It's my pride and joy. I love it."

The pink aluminum tree and a small forest of others glimmer in the window of her business, the Washington Street Antique Mall. The trees are for show, not for sale.

"Anyone can go out in the forest and cut a tree," Genske says, "but this is history."

The Wisconsin Historical Society agrees.

And this year, for the first time, the lowly tinsel tree has become a museum piece. An entire floor is dedicated to the Wisconsin-made trees.

The reviews aren't exactly sparkling.

"It's a bit tacky and you can't really put that many ornaments on it," says Aimee Van Ars, a fourth-grader on a field trip to the museum.

Her classmate Kate Craven takes a different view, saying, "I like the trees you get out of the woods better, but these are nice and glittery."

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