I’ve lived in this town all my life, and a sight I never tire of is that of the colored lights strung on the Courthouse tower each year at Christmastime. They first appeared in 1936, just a year after I was born, so you might say that I grew up with them.
That those lights were placed on the Courthouse in 1936 perhaps can be regarded as a bit of a miracle, for America was struggling to climb out of The Great Depression and money for such things was scarce. Nevertheless, the lights burned brightly that year and surely brought a bit of cheer to the community. The lightshot only graced the Courthouse tower, they cascaded down from the roof to the top of both the north and east porches of the building.
The drive to raise the $350 required to purchase and install the strands of lights did not begin until around Thanksgiving of 1936, and it was a struggle to reach the goal in time to decorate the Courthouse by Christmas. The Wabash Chamber of Commerce organized the drive, and the money dribbled in a dollar or two at a time from dozens of contributors. The drive was successful, and the lights were up and on in time for the holiday. Except perhaps for a year or two during World War II they’ve been a Christmastime tradition ever since.
The lights are a grand sight, particularly from the bluff on the south side of the Wabash River. The view of the Courthouse and its Christmas lights is particularly stunning to motorists who are headed north down “the cut” on Highways 13 and 15.
Although colored lights are the norm, clear bulbs have gleamed from the Courthouse on two occasions. The first time was in 1955 when we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the town’s becoming the first electrically lighted city. Workers strung the white lights from the tower in the summertime when the Diamond Light Jubilee occurred in conjunction with the National Plowing Contest, which brought tens of thousands of visitors to a site near Urbana.
White lights went up on the Courthouse again in 2005 for the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the first lights. In both 1955 and 2005 the clear bulbs remained on the tower during Christmastime. From a distance those bulbs glowed with a soft, golden light.
In the mid-1960s there was concern that the lights wouldn’t be installed for Christmas. The wiring was old and weathered, and the cost to replace strands and bulbs was considered by some to be prohibitive. But a story in The Wabash Plain Dealer by Jeff Smithburn ignited another successful public drive to fund the project, and our town’s “Christmas trademark” has not been threatened since.