Pieces of Bernhardt’s Christmas still part of Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SALISBURY — Believe it or not, people used to make special trips to Salisbury to see the Christmas decorations.

You might have been among them.

“We would ride uptown and look at all of the decorations,” Julie Gainer says, “but Bernhardt’s was my favorite, with the Santa and reindeer on the roof and all of the displays in his windows.”

Paul Bernhardt died earlier this year, and several months later his hardware store on North Main Street closed. But before most of the merchandise was sold, longtime employee R.C. Kesler helped in making sure some of the more recognizable Bernhardt decorations, made by Bernhardt himself, found new homes.

“I think Paul would be pleased with where it went,” Kesler says.

Rick’s Barbecue & Grill at 929 S. Main St. ended up with the Santa Claus going down the chimney, along with his reindeer and sleigh full of toys. They are nicely displayed on top of the restaurant’s long side awning.

“Everybody says, ‘I’ve seen that somewhere,’” Rick Foster says.

When they realize it used to be at Bernhardt’s, Foster says the reaction usually is, “We’ve seen that ever since we were kids.”

Bruce and Jackie Wilson, owners of Fine Frame Gallery at 105 S. Main St., are the proud owners of Bernhardt’s North Pole, which remains a great marvel because it’s chilly to touch.

A bit of advice: Do not take the triple-double-dog dare and put your tongue on The North Pole.

It’s set up outside the frame shop, and the Wilsons delight in watching through their front windows at the reactions of people as they touch the pole’s “ice.”

“I just love it,’ Bruce Wilson says. “It’s a little piece of history.”

Rowan Museum at 202 N. Main St. received Bernhardt’s player organ, with Emmett Kelly, the famous clown, at the keys. It’s in storage for this holiday season because of a previous commitment the museum made to a chrismon exhibit.

“He’s safe,” assures Kaye Brown Hirst, executive director of Rowan Museum. “I’ve visited him in storage lately. … We were thrilled and honored to be the recipient of that piece.”

Hirst wonders aloud just how many thousands of Rowan County citizens saw the Emmett Kelly likeness at the organ every Christmas. When she was young, Hirst accompanied her family to the Christmas parade in Salisbury and was always amazed at how spectacular the day was with the downtown awash in Christmas lights, decorations and displays.

A child never forgets those things.

“When I was a little girl,” Rebecca Trexler Pressley says, “my grandparents would take me to Bernhardt’s to look at the decorations. Good memories!”

Tracy Cress Goodman says she would beg her mother to drive around the block at least two or three times to see Santa and his reindeer again at the hardware store.

“My dad was the manager at Kenny’s Shoe Store down the street,” LaVaughn Beaver recalls. “What a treat it was to see all the decorations uptown, the highlight being Santa and reindeer at Bernhardt’s.”

The hardware store’s roof seemed so high to a child. Beaver and her sisters imagined it was the real Santa, believing that was how he looked when he arrived at their house on Christmas Eve.

Originally from Cooleemee, Rick Foster says his parents used to drive the family over to Salisbury to see its holiday decorations, including those at Bernhardt Hardware Co.

Foster can’t put an exact age on the Santa Claus, reindeer and sled, but they are at least 35 years old, because Bernhardt already had crafted them when Kesler first joined the hardware store.

Foster says he repainted his decorations and installed some new electric motors and lights. Everything’s in working order.

“Everybody’s excited about it,” Foster adds. “It makes me feel good for people to be talking about it. … I was real excited to get it, I know that.”

Kesler says Bernhardt built the organ, now owned by Rowan Museum, in 1957. A guy named Brown Foil helped him. Over the years, the attraction fell into disrepair, so Kesler refurbished everything, complete with a new Emmett Kelly.

The renovation was a Christmas surprise for Bernhardt, a merchant who carried a boyish love for the holiday all of his life.

The sled and reindeer used to be outside on a ledge at the hardware store before Bernhardt brought them inside for a display window.

“It was good to see Rick have it up,” Kesler says.

The Wilsons feel fortunate to have The North Pole at their store. They used to have pictures taken every holiday at the pole when it was at the hardware store.

Jim Hurley, a former police officer with the city who went into the air-conditioning business, figured out for Bernhardt how to keep The North Pole cold.

When the store was going out of business this summer, Wilson had to have the decoration.

“I told them I’d give them a million dollars,” he says. “It’s priceless.”

Wilson says the great thing about small towns are how people still embrace simple traditions that are lost in “the hustle and bustle” of bigger places.

“It always brings a smile,” Wilson says of people’s reaction when they touch The North Pole.

And it’s good luck.
At least that’s what a jolly elf man said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.