Christmas collector extraordinaire

Austin resident's vintage decorations on display at Oak Park history museum

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By LACEY SIKORA

Contributing Reporter

The turkey has been eaten, the first snow has fallen and the Christmas holiday is less than a month away. It is officially safe to buy a tree and start decorating for the holidays. 

While some people might need a push to get into the holiday spirit, Jerry Ehernberger is not that kind of decorator. In fact, this year, the Austin resident already has all of his decorating done, albeit not in his own home. 

Ehernberger, who has loved the art of decorating since he was a young child, is sharing some of his extensive collections of vintage lights and holiday decorations at the Oak Park River Forest History Museum. 

The exhibit is a stop on this weekend's Infant Welfare Society Holiday Housewalk and will be open to the public during normal museum hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, through Jan. 6. 

Ehernberger's collections have graced the Museum of Science and Industry and the pages of national publications such as Better Homes and Gardens and the New York Times. 

While his decorating might be at a level most of us can only dream of, his motivation is something most can relate to. For Ehernberger, decorating for the holiday is a means of connecting with loved ones in the past and present.

 

Hobby born of necessity

Ehernberger says he can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by Christmas decorations. 

"My memories of Christmas lighting go back to my earliest childhood, seeing the lights on the tree and being fascinated," he said.

But he didn't necessarily get the bug from his parents. All of the family's Christmas decorations fit inside one box stored at the top of a closet.

When he was 8 or 9, Ehernberger began creating holiday decorations out of felt and pipe cleaners. He says the isolation of his rural community played into his intense interest in the hobby. 

As an only child growing up on the west Nebraska prairie, his nearest neighbors lived more than a mile away and didn't have any children. He says he had to be creative about finding ways to fill his time.

"Growing up, I had to focus on projects that kept me entertained," he said.

Around fourth grade, Ehernberger says he began to collect unusual Christmas light bulbs. At age 13 in 1967, he recalls reading a story in Nebraska Electric Farmer magazine on the history of Christmas lights. 

He wrote a letter to the editor describing his collection, and the editor wrote back.

"They did an article on my collection with a picture of me, which inflated my ego about 10,000 times," Ehernberger said.

He sent a copy of the article to Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and someone at the company connected him with another vintage light collector in Pittsburgh. The two corresponded through letters, and another article on Ehernberger, published in Spinning Wheel magazine, turned out a few other collectors. The small group shared finds and corresponded via mail.

Ehernberger continued to scour flea markets and antique fairs for interesting specimens after moving to Chicago in 1977. After a particularly fruitful day in which he discovered hundreds of interesting specimens at an antiques fair at Arlington Race Track, he decided it was time to do more than collect.

"I was on my way home on Metra, and I started thinking how awkward it was to do this all by mail," Ehernberger said. "I decided to start a club with a publication and volunteered to do all the work for $5 a year."

His first newsletter was published in July 1980. The copy was hand-typed and the drawings were hand-sketched by Ehernberger. He photocopied everything and mailed out copies to his circle of collector friends. 

Today, The Golden Glow of Christmas Past, has a mailing list of over 2,000, a board of directors, paid editors and a four-color print process. The organization's Facebook page has over 20,000 members.

With the help of the internet, Ehernberger says the group has created thousands of personal connections, and now hosts a national convention every year for members to buy, sell and trade their vintage holiday lights.

 

Christmastown in Austin

Ehernberger has called Chicago's Austin neighborhood home for 26 years, and for much of that time, he has been slowly but surely restoring an architectural gem. He purchased a home built by Frederick Schock, whom he describes as the Frank Lloyd Wright of Austin. 

Built in 1888, Ehernberger's home is on the same street as Schock's own house and was built for the architect's mother.

When he purchased the home, he was keenly aware of how it would look when he brought out his holiday décor. 

"It has just enough character that my vintage Christmas decorations look at home," Ehernberger said. "My house is one of the smaller Schock homes, and when I bring out all of my Christmas decorations, it's not quite big enough."

The dilemma of where to place the Christmas tree is not an unfamiliar one, but Ehernberger's challenges are a bit larger. 

"Last year, I put up 27 trees," Ehernberger said. "In 2008, I pulled out all the stops and had 58 trees."

In case you are wondering, these numbers include only trees that he decorates with ornaments and lights, not his extensive collection of table-top trees. 

Ehernberger loves the ornaments and lights he has collected over the years and has many of them on display in the 12 trees he set up at the History Museum, but a few non-collector's items are nearest and dearest to his heart.

"I'm very fortunate to have kept some of my favorite ornaments that I made as a child," he said. "I have enough for a small tree, and I have my childhood nativity scene. For me, these are my favorite treasures because of the memories."

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