Almost 20 years after the Apple House ended its Christmas spectacle, the memories of the best display in the lower Midwest still linger.
By Donovan Wheeler
Photos Courtesy of the Apple House
I can’t remember if I was in second or third grade, but I can distinctly remember losing my mind one Christmas break in the late 1970’s. It had to be either ’77 or ’78 (I’m thinking the latter for some reason), but I recall that, out of all the holiday breaks I enjoyed as a little kid, that was the one that crawled along most slowly. On the days that Mom had off from her job as a bank teller, I would lay under the tree, tucking my head between a couple of wrapped boxes with my name on them, and stare at the lights which coned their way up into the spiderweb of branches that hid the star somewhere up there on the top. Losing myself in the splendor of the color, trying not to think about the fact that I had something like six more days until I could open up whatever rested under all that wrapping paper.
The cheap lights we can get today for a few bucks per box weren’t common back then, and while Mom adeptly covered the living room with garland, advent calendars, and angel chimes, it was always the lights that mesmerized me.
A dozen years later, when I first walked into Terre Haute’s Apple House, my college apartment didn’t quite evoke the Christmas color I’d grown up with. My tree was about two feet tall, my light collection was sparse, and the fake, dark, needles smothered them and reduced them to pinpoint flickers. I was a broke college junior in 1990, so for added decoration I stacked a pyramid of empty Coke cans—sporting various Santa poses on them—in my bedroom window. If I happened upon a couple feet of silver garland, I taped above the threshold to the living room. If someone gifted a Hallmark ornament, I made sure it took center stage amidst the blackness of my tree.
A lot of stores had Christmas displays, as did the mall south of the interstate. And before the Apple House, I had always found myself making an extra trip or two if for no other reason than to soak in the color and enjoy the canned peace that comes from elevator Christmas carols.
But after the Apple House, there was nowhere else to go.
“My dad is the one who started it,” says Tom Cummins, the Apple House’s CEO. “We had an older building which my dad had bought back in the ‘60’s, and he cobbled onto it about three different times. He was doing the Christmas thing when I came back here to work with him in 1981, but it was really cheezy,” Cummins adds laughing. “The ornaments were just piled into boxes…banana boxes and any kind of boxes we had. And we didn’t have any kind of decorated Christmas trees.”
Shortly after Cummins’ arrival, he and his father started to take the Christmas idea more seriously, and while the spot they had for it needed a lot of work, it was the perfect spot nonetheless.
“We had a greenhouse frame that came off the building to the north,” Cummins explains. “It was just a frame. We finally got it covered, and then we bought sliding glass door inserts and put those up as the windows on the street side.”
In an instant, that row of trees caught Terre Haute’s attention. Drivers slowed to a crawl along Third Street, also known as U.S. 41, a buzzing north-south thoroughfare whose “Speed Limit” signs passed for little more than decorations themselves. The advertising helped, but the word-of-mouth proved powerful.
“That [display] transformed the business overnight,” Cummins explains.
By the time I had caught a bit of that word-of-mouth I walked into a facility approaching its heyday. Before me lay nearly 35,000 square-feet of holiday spectacle. Think of the storefront window scene at the beginning of Bob Clark’s 1983 classic, A Christmas Story, and magnify the color, the nostalgia, and the sense of wonder by a factor of five. Then you’ll be about halfway there.
From my first step in a meandering path adorned with trees wound its way to the back corners of the showroom, so far that, in that back corner, you feel the trains rumble as they cut through the south end of town. There was something for everyone. It was there that my dad saw his first set of bubble lights since his childhood in the ‘50’s. It was there that my mom decided to dedicate the rest of her Christmases to Victorian themed trees. A few years later it would be there where my little kids would marvel at the pines showing off primary colors and their favorite cartoon characters.
“I had a crew of five people who would go with me to these shows,” Cummins says. “They were my designers, and each one of them was in charge of four or five trees. We would see a theme, and we would [latch on to that idea]. We might buy from six or seven other vendors [in order to fill up] that tree.” They traveled everywhere to get ideas: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas. As my wife pointed out to me, they did all of this before the internet, before Pinterest. Every year they scraped together some 25 original ideas, and every year they found a way to make those ideas stand out from the year before. All of it at a time when coming up with ideas meant getting off your butt and putting in the work.
But on that first visit of mine, it was there where I experienced that sort of youthful optimism that only happens when you’re in your early 20’s. I was almost done with school, and I had big plans for my adulthood. It was a heady time. Every road in front of me went up, and I was buoyed with that confidence that knows nothing about the troubles of normal adulthood.
Under, around, and beside each tree rested tight enclaves of ornaments, tinsel, and garland. Cotton sheeting passed for snow, and it led us from one “yellow-brick-road” of trees to the next. Beyond the grove lay even more color. More ornaments, holiday tins, Christmas signage, stuffed animals, battery-powered elves on ladders, wreaths of both the traditional and experimental variety filled every inch of usable space.
And the one display that particularly sent me back year after year, were the miniature villages.
“The [Department 56] salesman came by in October,” Cummins says, referencing the company that once marketed the popular ceramic buildings which made both nostalgic post-war towns and Dickensian street-corners.
“We were pretty much set up, and he said, ‘Man, you need to handle this. I don’t have anybody in Terre Haute selling this.’”
“I said, ‘People aren’t going to pay $50 for a little house.’”
“He said, ‘I guarantee you they will,’” Cummins remarks laughing again. “’Let me put $5,000 worth in here, and whatever you don’t sell, I’ll take it back.’ We blew out every piece in two weeks.”
The funny thing about being 21—hell…the funny thing about being any age, for that matter—is that when we come across something that reminds us of childhood, we let ourselves get completely lost in it. Maybe it was all the years my brother and I spent building our own “towns” with our Hot Wheels cars. Or maybe it was the rest of the time we spent building “galaxies” with our Star Wars action figures. Whatever it was, the intricacies of each small house and each corner shop took me back to that childhood. It was hard not to stare at the postman walking in front of the barber shop and imagine the conversation he’d have when he handed over the mail. It was equally hard not to take in the cluster of carolers in their top-hats singing over the noise of the horse-drawn coach.
“We were a destination for people,” Cummins admits. “We had people come from 50, 70, 80 miles away.”
When I graduated from college, my own trips grew from five miles to almost 200. But I kept coming back. Every single year. I don’t remember what year it was when I arrived and found the Christmas display condensed to a shadow of its former self. But for Cummins, keeping the tradition going came down to simple math, math that wasn’t working any longer.
“Basically, what happened was just kind of a perfect storm of bad timing,” Cumming says.
“The chain-stores had ramped up their footprint,” he explains. “You know, it used to be they just dabbled in the Christmas stuff. But once they ramped everything up, they just destroyed specific categories with cheap prices. Then Hobby Lobby moved into Terre Haute, and Jeffery Allan’s moved in as well.”
“We always had a half-price sale after Christmas, and for most of those years, we didn’t have much left,” Cummins adds. “All of a sudden that [sale] became a focal point for people, and they’d kind of just wait you out.”
“When I pulled the plug on it, I had basically taken a bath for two years in a row. You have to pay all your invoices on December the 10th. You’ve got $400,000 worth of invoices and when the bill is due you’ve got to come up with the 400,000, and then you look around and it’s all just sitting in the store.”
“I was running Disney World, but I wasn’t getting any admission,” he finishes matter-of-factly.
This is not to say that Cummins doesn’t appreciate his contribution to life in the Wabash Valley and beyond. But when your job is to make a profit, the only thing you can do is see his point and nod your head.
Coincidentally, in the years after the Apple House reduced its footprint to the garden center that it is now, my own relationship with the holidays changed. I got caught up in all the things that make life in one’s 30’s and 40’s very different from one’s 20’s.
But the early 50’s version of me has started to notice the lights again. Maybe I’m just proof of what all the research says—that when you hit this age, you just stop caring about a whole lot of stuff that once seemed important. But maybe it’s because I’ve watched the world practically fall apart and lose itself in anger and fear. Whatever the reason, those Christmas strolls through the Apple House have returned to the front of my brain. I’m not exactly sure what I would give for a chance to go back and take just one lap past all those trees and all of that color. But I imagine I would be willing to give quite a bit for the opportunity.
Since I can’t, maybe I’ll do something I haven’t done since third grade. Maybe I’ll just lay down under the tree and stare up into the lights, watching them snake their way to that place way up to the top that I can’t quite see.