Ronald Reagan hosts General Electric Theater on a TV hanging from the wall. A miniature play castle with plastic figurines of armored knights is set up on the coffee table. In the corner is a circular-framed television, sitting next to a small reel-to-reel projector. Across the room is a Maytag washing machine, standing above a two-story dollhouse. And the aluminum Christmas tree cannot be ignored.
It is Christmas morning in Richfield, 1954.
The Richfield History Center’s newest exhibit, “Christmas 1954,” takes visitors back six decades for the holiday season, giving them a taste of the way it was, or letting them relive Christmas in a time that Richfield was a burgeoning, booming suburb.
Many of the items adding to this effect were either loaned or donated from Richfield residents who experienced that Christmas day. Gary Anderson, among the half dozen or so residents to bring their relics from the era to the Historical Society, lent the greatest contribution to the collection.
The “Prince Valiant” castle set on the coffee table was given to Anderson as a young boy. He also contributed the model of a wooden ship sitting on the mantle, the metal proto-credit card from Sears, plus the paper reindeer-shaped greeting card holders and a set of cardboard knight’s shields that all somehow survived 60 years.
It was fitting for Anderson, a Bloomington resident but a Richfield native, to loan so many items because 1954, to him, was the best Christmas ever. “I think everybody has one of those,” said Anderson, who was 10 that year.
His anticipation for Christmas in 1954 began that summer when he saw the movie, “Prince Valiant and the Knights of the Roundtable” at the Richfield movie theater.
It had knights, horses, armor and blood. “Everything a 10-year-old loves, you know?” Anderson said. “That kind of set the tone.”
He got the knight’s shields through a promotion from the Creamette pasta company. “You go to a store with your mom and she buys the week’s groceries and they give you the shield,” he said.
At 10, Anderson’s “iffy” belief in Santa Claus, as he calls it, could not dampen his excitement for the holiday. “Everything kind of came together,” he said. “We had a lot of snow. I remember that we had a lot of snow every day.”
That instigated regular trips to the park. “My buddies and I would spend all day at Augsburg Park sliding, just being kids,” Anderson recalled, noting a daily itinerary that seemed far less packed than kids’ schedules these days.
“We weren’t on teams. We weren’t shoved here and there and didn’t put on uniforms and all that stuff. We just went out and had fun.”
The Christmas gifts that year helped, too. In addition to the grand prize that was the Prince Valiant knight set, another highlight was the “Stallion .45” full-sized cap pistol Anderson got from his sister. He remembers it was so heavy it made his pants sag.
Nevertheless, “I thought I was the toughest dude in Dodge City with that,” he said.
Larson is in good position to furnish the history center with artifacts from the years of Richfield’s suburban boom. “My mother never threw anything away, so I’m continually unearthing stuff,” he explained. “My garage and my basement down here is a continual archeological dig.”
A busier history center
Anderson’s contributions help the efforts of Richfield Historical Society Director Jodi Larson, who is curating this year’s holiday exhibit in efforts to continue growing the base of historical society patrons. The number of people the organization has served has increased five-fold over the last two years, Larson reported.
Last year they served a little over 1,300 people — “serving” means some kind of meaningful interaction occurred between the Historical Society and a patron. That number is expected to hit 3,000 by the end of the year, Larson said.
The boost in exposure has been aided by an outreach effort that has included regular exhibits at the Richfield Farmers Market and a string of new exhibits being set up at the Historical Society’s headquarters next to the historic Bartholomew House, near Lyndale Avenue and west 69th Street.
The museum’s other current exhibit is “Teenage Richfield,” featuring an assortment of items that may remind visitors of their adolescent years. This includes a mock soda fountain counter and a restored, working 1950s jukebox.
This is the second year the History Center has set up a holiday-themed exhibit meant to replicate a family room from a bygone era; last year was 1977.
The Richfield History Center is open Wednesdays, noon to 8 p.m. and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. “Christmas 1954” is open through January 5.