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Christmas in the Country

November 9, 2016 through January 15, 2017

Cedarburg’s annual folk art show started small, but experienced exponential growth as a boutique over the years.
This exhibition is part of the “Three Fine Folk” collaboration of shows between the Cedarburg Art Museum, Cedarburg Cultural Center, and the Wisconsin Museum of Quilt and Fiber Arts.

The Midwest’s premier folk art show and sale started small. The first December showcase of folk art-inspired crafts and fine arts started in 1975 in Susan and Jack Hale’s old fieldstone summer kitchen on Green Bay Road. In the first year, four friends pulled together their resources in two weeks’ time to showcase their favorite artistry pieces.  The original organizers of this December extravaganza were Susan Hale, Sandra Pape, Luella Doss, and Betty Schmidt, all from the Cedarburg-Grafton area.  In the midst of its 39-year span this event blossomed into the Midwest’s foremost folk art sale and show.  Early newspaper articles and promotional postcards from the mid- to late-1970s touted hand-crafted items such as quilts, dolls, weaving, toys, antique lace, ornaments, stitchery, framed pen-and-inks and home-made soaps by about 20 artists.  

By the fourth year, the holiday event that originally had only Friday and Saturday hours expanded to include Sunday hours.  In 1979, the fifth year, Christmas in the Country moved to the Newberry Winery Tasting Room in the Cedar Creek Settlement to better accommodate guests with customer flow, parking, and restroom facilities. Samples of Russian tea and Christmas cookies were available for guests as they browsed the holiday displays of folk and fine art. The 1979 Christmas in the Country had been touted the “Nieman-Marcus  of boutiques” by the Milwaukee Journal and in so doing, caused traffic problems in Cedarburg and lines of customers for a city block. There were reportedly 2,000 extra visitors in Cedarburg’s downtown on the first weekend in December, 1979.  

Christmas in the Country creative leaders (l to r):  Susan Hale, Ronnie Hammes, Sandra Pape, and Luella Doss wore hand-crafted muslin aprons to distinguish themselves as artist participants. Photo by Doug Edmunds for Northshore Lifestyle, December. 1993.

To help disperse crowds and alleviate waiting, in 1980 organizers added an invitational preview on Thursday evening and Friday evening hours.  They also expanded into the winery cellar for better traffic flow of customers.  Additional specialty items in 1980 included one-of-a-kind dolls, wreaths, homemade jellies and other food items, advent calendars, hand-painted gift boxes, children’s quilted and appliquéd vests plus patchwork and lace vests for women. 

By 1981, Betty Schmidt pulled away from the board of Christmas in the Country to attend to her family’s new business. Ronnie Hammes, veteran exhibitor of hand-embroidered, crazy quilt-inspired creations, replaced Schmidt in a leadership role for the burgeoning business that now required year-round planning and attention. 

To ensure high-quality works in the show, the four organizers formed a board for jurying artists’ works into the Christmas in the Country boutique.  The board determined that all works of an artist were to be original, and one-third of them were to be new and never shown to the public before. The jurying process also helped to encourage creativity as new works were required each year.  At its apex of creativity and participation, some 55 artists were part of the Christmas in the Country boutique in the mid-1990s.

Susan Hale’s snapshot from December 1984 shows the typical grouping of a variety of artists’ works together at a Christmas in the Country display.   Folk art dolls, carved Santa sculptures, feather trees, ceramic plates, hand-made toys and quilts were visual stimulation for all.

The fellowship of the artists who would get together year-round to plan Christmas in the Country provided inspiration for new ideas and projects amongst the artists in addition to stimulating the patrons who came to see the newest works each year. This 39-year creative venture also set a pattern to help make the first weekend in December one of the busiest shopping days of the year for Cedarburg’s downtown.   

Vintage German feather trees inspire local cottage industry

Christmas in the Country was a thriving, enterprising business that supported creativity in the arts for many years in Ozaukee County.  It also spurred offshoot enterprises of specialty products.  One such specialty production was Primitive Trees, a partnership formed by Sandra Pape and Nancy Messinger of Cedarburg in 1983 to create their own American versions of German feather trees. 

According to a Dec. 12, 1984 article in The (Milwaukee) Business Journal, Sandy Pape had bought a sparsely branched artificial Christmas tree at an auction 14 years earlier.  No one else wanted it, so Sandy brought home the scraggly, vintage tree for ten cents.  A decade later this German-made feather tree and several other similar “finds” became an antique collector’s delight.  

In the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, the Germans were concerned with deforestation by annual Christmas tree harvests and started making artificial trees out of turkey and goose feathers.  These artificial trees came to the USA with German immigrants and were also imported by American department stores in the early 20th Century. Americans became enamored with the simplicity of the sparsely branched trees that would shed no needles and could be stowed away with ornaments intact. 

Sandra Pape, left, and Nancy Messinger in 1989 with the products of their feather tree business.  Photo from Midwest Living magazine, December 1989.

Over the years, the Primitive Trees enterprise in Cedarburg employed a variety of local cottage industry workers that had specialty tasks for making the finished product. Some workers would turn the wooden bases or make the wood fencing.  Others would wrap dyed goose feathers around wire branches; and still others would attach the branches wrapping them into the central wooden dowel or work on shipping out the orders.  In recent years Nancy Messinger has been the sole owner of Primitive Trees. 

This detail view of a Primitive Trees feather tree shows the goose feather branches. Dyed goose feathers are split and splayed, then wrapped around wire armatures that become branches of the tree.  A Pape and Messinger feather tree characteristically had an artificial red berry at the tips of the branches.

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