MONMOUTH, Ill. — The impressive refurbishing of Monmouth’s Public Square nativity set this year by Eagle Scout Briar Shinn calls to mind an earlier downtown nativity scene that also had an impressive story.
First erected in 1953, that manger scene came about through a remarkable community effort that was a joint undertaking between the Chamber of Commerce and the Monmouth Council of Churches. The centerpiece of a “Put Christ Back in Christmas” campaign, the nativity featured elegant figures that were pure white and larger than life-size.
With additional figures purchased in 1954, the total investment was $5,000, which, given inflation, would today cost nearly $50,000.
The churches behind the effort represented a truly ecumenical mix: St. James AME, Immanuel Baptist, Christian Science, Calvary Baptist, First Baptist, First Christian, First Methodist, Trinity Episcopal, Foursquare Gospel, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventists, Immaculate Conception Catholic, and First, Second, West Side and Ninth Avenue United Presbyterian.
Fundraising began in August 1953 with an ice cream social held on the Lincoln School lawn. Nearly 1,000 cakes were donated and 232 gallons of ice cream were consumed at the event, which drew an estimated 3,600 patrons.
Then in October, a second fundraiser drew thousands of people to the Monmouth Armory for a massive white elephant sale. Bob Albert, executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, said such a large sale had never been staged in Monmouth.
Three local auctioneers combined their talents to draw bids on an assortment of goods that included glassware, puppies, an antique organ, furniture, farm wagons, toys, baked goods and clothing. Gross proceeds were $1,200, which met the $3,000 goal for the initial purchase of figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ child, three wise men riding camels, a shepherd and two sheep.
With the first year’s figures purchased, volunteers set to work building a stable and lighting. Monmouth Lumber Co. donated materials and G. V. “Bud” Horner was in charge of construction. George Themanson installed the lights, which included a Star of Bethlehem hung high in a tree over the stable.
The lighting ceremony was held on Friday, Dec. 4, beginning with a mass community sing from 7 to 8 p.m., directed by Lester Munneke. With more than two dozen Monmouth retail stores open late through the holiday season, the display was viewed by thousands — not only fulfilling the churches’ mission of helping put Christ back in Christmas but also making Bob Albert and his Chamber members happy.
The Chamber got to work the following summer, organizing another ice cream social to complete the purchase of the nativity set. A committee consisting of Albert, C. W. Buchanan, Brown Hamilton, Clem O’Brien, Harold Peterson, Lyle Pierce, O. E. Sterett and Samuel Stohl organized an ice cream social in late August that drew an even larger crowd than the previous year’s. Added to the scene as a result were an angel, two shepherds, a donkey and additional sheep.
By 1955, the popularity of the display began to cause problems, as cars were slowing down to take a closer look and fowling up traffic. As a result, the 1956 display was relocated to the southeast corner of the Monmouth College campus. Chamber secretary Rodney Harris noted that the natural rustic setting of the college also made the scene less commercialized. In its place, a large Christmas tree was erected in the center of the Public Square.
But the experiment must not have been popular with merchants and residents, as the following year the nativity scene returned to the Square. Exactly how many holiday seasons those figures continued to grace downtown Monmouth seems to be lost to time. Perhaps one of the thousands who remember them fondly from their youth will step forward with an answer.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.