FARGO — It is one of the most iconic scenes in one of the most iconic Christmas movies of all time. Ralphie Parker peers inside the department store window at the highly coveted Red Ryder BB gun while little brother Randy smashes his nose up against the glass, mesmerized by the flashing lights and the model train going round and round.
It turns out children in the mid-20th century in Fargo-Moorhead had similar experiences every year with a Christmas display at one downtown Fargo store.
Let’s go back a bit.
About one week ago, when we were looking at story assignments for the “Do You Remember” segment for Black Friday, it seemed natural to reflect back on the beginning of the Christmas shopping seasons in years past — long before we knew about Amazon, Etsy or even shopping malls.
I asked readers on Facebook to share their memories of Fargo-Moorhead stores of days gone by.
Say what you want about social media, but it certainly did its job for me that day. I was inundated with comments, messages and emails about all of the wonderful downtown Fargo and Moorhead stores people remembered from their younger years. Thank you so much everyone!
There was absolutely no way we could talk about all of the stores mentioned in one news story. A Ken Burns-esque mini series, maybe? I hope at some point to write more stories on as many memories as possible, but for now I had to narrow it down. And, it turns out it wasn’t that difficult.
There was a recurring theme of many of the 200-plus comments I read from that post: the Herbst Department Store Christmas window display and its central role in kicking off the holiday season.
“Our grandpa used to take us downtown (I think it was Thanksgiving evening) when Herbst windows had just been decorated for Christmas. I especially remember the motorized teddy bears. It was the highlight of the Christmas season!” said Gwen Odney.
“Everyone waited for them to be revealed they were always special. Like Disneyland with the motion and lights just wonderful!! So miss them,” said Chelly Johnson.
Thanks for the memories, boomers! But for those of you who don’t know what they’re talking about, let’s take a closer look.
The Herbst Department store was the locally owned focal point of downtown Fargo shopping from its start in 1892 through most of the 20th century. It was located at 16 Broadway, just down the block from The Old Broadway restaurant and across the street from Bell Bank.
Until very recently, it was home to CI Apparel. This was no ordinary store. It was a destination spot for shoppers from all over the region.
In the 1950s, The Fargo Forum highlighted Herbst's impressive air conditioning system and brand new elevator. It housed a cafeteria and a hair salon and even invited teenage girls to get involved by serving on the Herbst “teen board.”
Society changed, malls were built and Herbst downtown closed its doors in 1982. But memories of those windows live on.
An animated window
One of the biggest differences between the window in “A Christmas Story” and the Herbst windows was what was on display.
In the movie, merchandise is packed within the window - not just the train set and BB gun, but dolls, cars and games. But Herbst windows, at least the ones people remember, didn’t have merchandise in them at all. Management said it would distract people from enjoying the real show — the animated bears.
“I remember the animated scenes at Herbst. There were bears and bunnies. One scene was a Mom rolling out cookies or pie crust and another window that showed one of the animals as a postman whose mail truck got stuck in the snow. We got to see these every year at Christmastime. It was just like the opening scene of 'A Christmas Story,'" said Mary Swanson.
A Dec. 2, 1967, story in The Fargo Forum reported it took a week for “Herbst Display Man” Byron Berg to set up the display which was built by the world’s largest producer of animated window displays in the country.
The exhibit had 36 motors with synchronized timers coordinating the action. The motors were hidden under mounds of fake snow supported by wood and chicken wire to allow the motors to stay cool.
The 1967 Fargo Forum writer seemed duly impressed.
“Rather trance-provoking, the different bears are in numerous predicaments," they wrote. "There is the papa bear wearing a bee hat who is tending a swarm of buzzing bees, while a baby bear eats honey. Also two girl bears in a treehouse, one chatting away while the other drinks tea. A favorite is a girl bear putting a plunger into the horn of the boy bear who is playing it.”
Obviously, shoppers were impressed, too.
Some told me they used to beg their parents to take them downtown so they could gaze in the window.
Others said they were allowed to stand there while mom or dad went inside to shop. Simpler times.
While today’s kids might not get it — it’s hard to picture a Gen Z’er standing in the cold to watch a few stuffed animals run around in fake snow — for those who do remember, it’s a precious blast from the past.
Marilee Sheets Wagner put it this way, “It was a great store! I loved the Herbst bears! They seemed magical back then.”