Tree tradition arrives

Via the canal

Imagine one of the first Christmas trees appearing in Fort Wayne. How did it get here? Whose home did it grace, and what sort of decorations did it display? Historian Bert Griswold left us a few answers to these questions. What appears to be a photocopy of an unnamed and undated newspaper article found in the Allen County Public Library’s “Scrapbook of Fort Wayne History” is a story titled, “The Authentic Narrative of the Beginning of the use of the Tree as a Feature of Christmas Celebrations in Fort Wayne.”

Mrs. William V. Douglass of Fort Wayne, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Charles A. Schmitz, related the story. Dr. Schmitz (1809-1886) was a graduate of the medical college in Bohn, Germany, and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1835. After moving to Fort Wayne in 1837, he spent 48 years here, including being named editor of the German newspaper, Der Deutsche Beobachter von Indiana (established by Thomas Tigar in 1843) and became the first president of the Allen County Medical Society when it was organized in 1860. He was described as a gentle, quiet man with a kindly demeanor.

Presumably the tree arrived in Fort Wayne in 1840, although the date is not certain, to fulfill the wish of the Schmitz family recalling Christmas customs in the doctor’s native Osnabruck, Germany. In order to get the type of evergreen that was not grown in the Three Rivers region at that time, the family had to order it from a vendor in Cincinnati, a process that began in June.

The tree was said to be delivered by canal boat. Typically, the canal was closed to navigation with autumn’s freezing temperatures and the waterways being iced over solid. As to the date of 1840: In his book “The Ohio Canals,” Frank Wilcox points out the Wabash & Erie Canal opened between Fort Wayne and Toledo in 1843. Wilcox also said the Wabash & Erie connected with the Miami & Erie Canal toward Cincinnati. In 1840, that canal had just opened and extended only to Dayton.

It took some time before the two canals were joined at Junction, Ohio. The first boats to complete the connection to and from Cincinnati did so in June 1845. At that time, the Miami & Erie Extension reached Junction and the Wabash & Erie Canal made a connection west to Fort Wayne. It was likely that Dr. Schmitz’ tree did travel on a canal boat but was transferred by a wagon hauled overland to reach Fort Wayne. Perhaps it is safe to say that the delivery of the tree was made during the mid 1840s.

Once the tree arrived and was taken into the Schmitz home “on the west side of Calhoun street, near Washington boulevard west” it came with the doctor’s additional order of several “unusually brilliant and glittering tree decorations.” Daughter Mrs. Douglass said her father fashioned additional ornaments by “gilding English walnuts and attaching them to the branches of the tree. Candles also must have been used, for the observance of the Christmas time in his native Germany and in Philadelphia, where he stopped a short time before he came here.”

According to Mrs. Douglass, local Native Americans were warmly welcomed. The visitors were delighted with the Christmas tree, which was decorated and lighted. Once the gifts were put in place, her baby sister was placed in a basket on the floor beneath the tree. “After all,” she told historian Griswold, the visitors’ real interest “turned from the tree to the baby in the basket.”

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