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Saturday, November 28, 2020

60 Years of Memories: Christmas Preparations In Butler


60 Years of Memories of Butler

by James Ring


In the 1960s and 1970s, right after Thanksgiving was out of the way, Butler’s uptown district always began its annual emphasis on the upcoming Christmas season. The stores around the square added appropriate decorations to their display windows, replacing fall leaves and pumpkins with snowflakes and Santas. Strings of colored lights were hung and Christmas music began to be heard.


The Sam’l Levy Mercantile department store got into the spirit, as did its rival J.C. Penney, and probably nobody enjoyed decorating for Christmas more than Charlie Robertson, at his office supply store on the north side of the Square. Charles went to Kansas City in the off-season to obtain retired holiday decorations from places like Macy’s or Hallmark, storing them use in late November. Then he put up fat garlands across his store’s ceiling, hung a constellation of colored glass ornaments and erected a whole forest of Christmas trees.


The City of Butler, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce, put up a “tent” of colored lights over the Square, strung from the top of the Courthouse to the street corners, with lines criss-crossing at intersections and down the adjacent streets off the Square. The thousands of incandescent bulbs needed a lot of troubleshooting and replacement by the light department crews. The result, when activated, was termed “the Little Plaza”, visible for miles around, as viewed from along 52 highway and from Summit schoolhouse.


The purpose of all this effort was commercial, of course. The Christmas shopping season amounted to the “13thmonth” of a retail business year and, there being no access to big-box out-of-town stores or on-line shopping, buying was done almost entirely locally. Stores stayed open late in the evening for the three weeks leading up to Christmas and extra help was hired to wait on shoppers.


Each year, the lights were first turned on at the conclusion of the big Christmas parade, as a huge crowd gathered under the still-dark canopy over the Square. Santa Claus was brought into town on, or behind, the big red fire truck driven by fire chief Dick Leavitt (predecessor to now-Mayor Jim Henry) and high school bands, floats and club haywagons strung out for blocks. And then the switch was thrown, to the ooh-and-ahs of the waiting throng.


For years, teacher Charlie Greener occupied Santa’s chair in the Chamber’s Santa Claus house, enjoying letting children whisper their fondest wishes in his ear. His hours coincided with the extended shopping times. Another professional Santa was rotund and bearded Art Evans, who worked the role in Kansas City before retiring to the Bates County area. 


As time went on, easy access to the City shopping centers via four-lane 71 highway, and the shift to off-square retail business, diminished the role of Christmas on the Square. Evening shopping is no longer seasonal, Sunday is no longer kept sacred and the lights are not as impressive as they once were. But we had some fun times, preparing for Christmas in Butler.