Christmas Tree Lights

Peggy Derrick

Catalog Number: 1987.071.01 

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As we approach the shortest day of the year, let us give thanks for electric lights. When we rise in the dark and come home from work or school in the dark, a brightly lit home, however humble, is a true comfort.

Many of us add the sparkle of a brightly lit Christmas tree, or other holiday lighting, to our homes. And as a community, we love to bask in the magic of the 4 million colored lights in the Rotary Lights display in Riverside Park.

The first Christmas lights were created, fittingly enough, by Thomas Edison, in 1880. He strung together a series of his incandescent light bulbs and hung them outside his Menlo Park laboratory. Two years later his partner, Edward H. Johnson, hand-wired red, white and blue bulbs together and strung them on his revolving Christmas tree. The use of decorative Christmas lighting grew right alongside the use of electric lights in general.

After that, various companies saw the potential and began marketing Christmas lights. This splendiferous strand boasts eight round bulbs that were once painted different colors. The remains of the original label on their box says “Franco, Decorative lighting with Edison miniature incandescent lamps.” Each lamp has a little point, called an exhaust tip, and carbon filaments.

These lights were donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1987 by Frederick G. Davies. Davies was a retired history professor who taught for 29 years at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, or the State Teachers College, as it was then known. Davies was recognized as a scholar of the American Civil War; he was also locally famous for the corncob pipe he smoked and for banning the chewing of gum in his classroom.

When he donated these lights to LCHS, he wrote on his donation form: “… lights from my first Christmas tree, Dec. 25, 1911 … at this time we lived at 1004 Pine St., Winnetka, Ill. My parents were Cora Belle Gould Davies and Rev. J.W.F. Davies.”

A year later, Davies would be dead, at 78. His professional life is memorialized in the Special Collections at UW-L’s Murphy Library, but with this donation of Christmas lights, something of his personal life is illuminated as well. He had saved this memento of his childhood for his entire life, and in giving it to LCHS he made sure to honor the memory of his parents and his childhood home.

 

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 9, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

 

Hixon House hot chocolate pot

Peggy Derrick

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With Christmas on its way — and winter as well — some of us will use steaming mugs of hot cocoa, topped with marshmallows or whipped cream, to take the chill off while celebrating the season.

In Gideon and Ellen Hixon’s day, hot chocolate also was enjoyed, but they would have been surprised by the size of our servings. Their hot chocolate set has small cups, holding barely 4 ounces, poured from a special chocolate pot.

The hot chocolate set is presently in the family parlor at their home, Historic Hixon House, as we like to imagine that Mrs. Hixon and a friend, or perhaps a grandchild, would have enjoyed a cup or two together in that room.

This is a late 19th century reproduction of an 18th century set. How do I know that? By the small size of the serving cups and by the tall narrow shape of the chocolate pot.

In the 1700s, hot chocolate was a complicated affair, and an expensive one. It was a luxury item, served from elegant porcelain or silver pots. But to make the hot chocolate you had to laboriously grind the cacao beans with sugar and spices, and then mix that with hot water or milk. The mixture constantly wanted to settle to the bottom, so the hot chocolate required much stirring. Tall narrow pots were used, with a lid that had an opening in the middle: the finial would have been removed and a long stirring rod inserted through the hole so that the chocolate could have been stirred and kept in suspension.

All that went away in 1828 when the process of preparing cocoa powder from the cacao pods was invented by a Dutch chemist named van Houten. Cocoa powder made hot chocolate easier to make and consume, and the price went down as cocoa powder became more readily available.

This chocolate pot does not have a hole in the center of its lid, telling me that it was produced after cocoa powder became commonly used. It has no maker’s marks at all, and I have no way of confirming how this even came to be in the house. Was it purchased by the Hixons in La Crosse, or is it a souvenir of a trip to Europe? They traveled there several times and brought back a great many things by ship.

I am inclined to think that Ellen Hixon did bring this back from a trip to the Continent, based on the motifs on the pieces. Victorian Americans, just a few generations removed from their Puritan ancestors, did not hold with a lot of nudity in their art, while Europeans have enjoyed the human form in all its unclothed glory since the Renaissance. Greek and Roman mythology have been the excuse for nudity and violence ever since, elevating our natural human interests to a mythical, classic plane.

It’s hard for me to picture Doerflinger’s department store selling this chocolate pot set. Cupids, nymphs, goddesses and one mortal male are depicted undressed, frolicking and fighting. I know the man is mortal because he has just been stabbed by a bare-chested goddess standing over him with a spear, while he appears to be dying in the middle of the lovely pastoral landscape.

The small crown on her head, combined with the fact that her modesty is partially maintained by floating draperies, makes me think she is meant to be Hera, wife of Zeus. But I’m just guessing, and I am not up on my Greek mythology enough to know who she was killing or why. Perhaps the maker was simply inspired by the original Mayan belief that their chocolate was the “food of the gods,” long before Europeans discovered it and took it back to Europe with them.

This chocolate set was much more than a way to drink hot chocolate, and by the end of the 19th century the availability of cocoa powder may have led most people to drink theirs from standard-size cups. This was a way of showing the user’s appreciation of European culture and history.

Today we still associate Cupid, the god of desire and affection, with chocolate, but we’ve removed the sex and violence that was a part of his world.

 

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 2,  2017.

The Big Yellow House

Peggy Derrick

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On the corner of Seventh and Badger streets, surrounded by the Western Technical College campus and City Hall, stands a big old yellow house. It is the last remnant of its old neighborhood and one of the oldest buildings in La Crosse.

Built and used by the Hixon family, the house was donated by the family to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1965, and for over 50 years, we have given public tours of its remarkably intact circa 1910 interiors. These interiors reflect the wealthy lifestyle of early taste makers in local society, and their opulence and historical authenticity are what impress visitors.

But the building itself is actually quite unremarkable from an architectural standpoint. It fits into a broad style category known as “vernacular,” meaning that common methods of construction were used to make a house like many others, without the involvement of an architect. At best, one of the popular style books of the day would have been the builder’s reference point. At one time there would have many similar homes, both large and small, throughout the small frontier town.

The specific style, known as Italianate, is recognized from the house’s deep eaves, supported by large ornamental brackets. Italianate homes have much less “decoration” than other Victorian styles, and the Hixon home maintained its simplicity of design throughout several additions.

The building reflects the story of the man who built it, Gideon Hixon, and the family he raised there. In the 1850s, many people from the east coast of the United States were moving westward, settling on the frontier in the Midwest, acting on the national conviction that it was their natural right, or Manifest Destiny, to do so.

Gideon, a young man from Massachusetts, came with his wife and her brother, and in partnership began working in the new and quickly expanding lumber business. Sarah died within the first year, but shortly after Gideon brought his sister and widowed mother to La Crosse. He needed a place for them, as well as a couple of brothers who came and went, to live. The first section of the house was begun in 1858. The last addition was made in 1900.

Between those dates Gideon remarried in 1861, to Ellen Pennell, another New Englander, and they had five sons, all born in the house. By the time of his death his lumber business had made him a very wealthy man. His sons had grown, gone into the family business and continued to increase the family wealth.

The Hixons proved themselves to be not just successful capitalists but generous civic patrons as well, funding hospitals, schools and parks. From Granddad Bluff to Riverside Park, La Crosse to this day reflects their influence.

I find it interesting that this personal generosity, and love of beauty and comfort within their home, was not combined with any need for public show. Ellen and Gideon Hixon never saw a need to replace their modest wood house with something bigger and fancier on “lumber barons’ row,” on Cass Street. Gideon was true to his New England roots and remained a practical man who did not spend money he didn’t have to. In 1892, he died in the house on Seventh Street, which was surrounded by mostly modest homes in a less than prestigious part of town. His widow, Ellen, continued to live their until her death in 1913.

After that, their children kept the house as their mother had left it, until donating it to the LCHS in 1965. We have cared for it since then, and, like all old houses, it needs a lot of upkeep. Right now it needs painting; it has been 14 years since it was last done, and the exterior is looking pretty shabby from peeling paint. Estimates are coming in at nearly $25,000, so we are kicking off a campaign to “Repaint Historic Hixon House” on Giving Tuesday.

You can help preserve this rich legacy of local history by participating and donating to help Repaint Historic Hixon House. It’s going to be a lot of money for us to raise and we need help! You can donate at our website, www.lchshistory.org, or contact our office at 145 West Ave. S., La Crosse. Phone number is 608-872-1980.

Let’s make Gideon and Ellen’s house look good again, and take care of it for the future.

 

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 25, 2017.