Looking for a Hallmark love story

December 18, 2021
A sign in the corner of Veterans Park marks Elkhorn as the Christmas Card Town, a moniker that dates back to the 1950s and a series of paintings of Elkhorn that were turned into Christmas cards and distributed around the country.


I had been in Elkhorn, Wisconsin for more than 24 hours and not one person had asked me to help save their family business or set up for that night’s tree lighting. The town might be Wisconsin’s Christmas Card Town, but so far there was little evidence of a Hallmark movie in progress. 

When I first heard about the towns’ interesting moniker, I knew there was only one way to confirm if it was true: I had to go there and see for myself how many Christmas movie cliches the town had.  

For official guidance on what to look for, I consulted my friend, Emily Ristow, who began rattling off requirements including Christmas traditions, town tree lighting, caroling, a good bakery or café, local shops, fake snow, an older man who could actually be Santa, and the most important ingredient of all, a love story.  

I had my own requirements, including a quaint bed and breakfast or inn. I started there, at the Ye Olde Manor House just north of town.  

It was a promising start. Karen Fulbright-Anderson greeted me at the door with a brownie and gave me a tour of the lovely inn that she owns with her husband, John Anderson. My second-floor bedroom was cozy and comfortable, and I took the evening’s stunning sunset as a good omen for things to come. 

But I was the only one staying at the inn that night, so despite the romantic setting, there was no chance of a love story there. After a filling breakfast the next morning, I headed into town.  

The key to Christmas movie love stories is that the people are never looking for love, which is good news for me, because I’m an expert in that department.  

I also checked another couple boxes, being from a “big city” and having a job that seems to pop up a lot in those movies, although with fewer designer clothes on my more realistic journalist’s salary. 

Christmas Card Town’s 15 minutes of fame

I took my big-city self to the Matheson Memorial Library in pursuit of the real reason I was in town – to track down the history of the Christmas Card Town nickname.  

There director Chad Robinson told me the moniker dates back to a “March of Time” TV segment in 1952 that featured Elkhorn during the holidays. The 30-minute program – which you can watch on YouTube – includes Norman Rockwell-worthy scenes of the small town during the holidays, following Elkhorn Independent Editor Claude Eames around town to local businesses, local high schoolers making decorations in shop class, choirs singing carols, and the town square decked out in garland and a fresh coat of snow, “giving Elkhorn a postcard look,” narrator Westbrook Van Voorhis says.  

“It was just a classic, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ town,” library associate Kelly Stech said.  

According to Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Clapper, the episode caught the eye of a Ford Motor Co. executive who was visiting later and saw the town square for himself. When the company later commissioned artist Cecile Johnson to paint six watercolors of Christmas scenes for their magazine, they asked her to use Elkhorn as the setting. 

“In most of them the action takes place in Veterans Park, the city square … which is where the city still does its tree lighting,” Robinson said.  

In the ‘60s, a publishing company turned five of the paintings into Christmas cards that were sold around the country, and the Christmas Card Town was born.   

The Chamber of Commerce recognized the opportunity this fame presented and in 1996 commissioned artist Jan Castle-Reed to create new paintings that “depict the spirit of Elkhorn” every year, according to the Chamber’s Visitors Guide. Most of Castle-Reed’s paintings focused on historical homes, many of which still stand. Castle-Reed created 12 paintings over the ensuing years, with wildlife artist Earl Gustaveson contributing a painting of a fox looking up a tree at a pair of elk antlers in 1998. 

In 2012, T. James Carson took up the Christmas card painting mantle. This year’s card is titled “Heading Home For The Holidays At The Depot” and features a train at Elkhorn’s 1856 train depot.

“Each card does have some significance to it,” Clapper said.

The 2020 card, for example, depicts Santa checking his list in front of the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce. The Santa is Gary Wallem, who played Santa in town events for over 50 years. Wallem passed away in 2019 and is also remembered with an inscription on a Santa decoration that’s on the town square.  

Since not everyone would know the significance of cards like that, Clapper said in the future they hope to put all of the Christmas cards with descriptions on display on the town square. 

Searching for Hallmark love

With the Christmas Card Town story mostly told, I headed out to continue my own Christmas movie story and see this famous town square for myself. Wooden decorations lined the sidewalks around the square, anchored by Veterans Park, with historical storefronts lining the other side of the street. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic, though, so, unfortunately, no chance of accidentally spilling coffee on the future love of my life.  

That also would require I actually had coffee, so I finished my stroll at Friends on the Square, part café and ice cream parlor, part boutique. Locals came in and chatted familiarly with the bearded barista as Christmas music softly played in the background. Still no requests to help with the business, but I was checking more items off the Hallmark cliches list. 

While sipping a vanilla latte and munching on a veggie panini, I asked the barista if the café would be open for the tree lighting that night. He said they would, and they also would be hosting a Christmas market for children. Precocious children and a holiday market? That’s Christmas movie gold. But I didn’t think my brother would let me borrow my niece and nephew for the evening on such short notice, so instead I headed to Duesterbeck’s Brewery, which was hosting its own grown-up Christmas market.  

Dozens of vendors were scattered around the brewery grounds, which are anchored by a bright red barn that houses the taproom. Owners Laura and Ben Johnson converted the 150-year-old farm that had been in Laura’s family for five generations into a brewery that opened in 2019. The old farm field filled with cars and the busy taproom were signs this business did not need any help from me.  

As with most shopping locales, this one was filled with women, or women with their husbands in tow – not a single flannel-clad man selling his homemade honey in sight. And despite it only being 2:30 p.m., I was already exhausted. The whole trying-to-find-love-in-a-Christmas-town thing was more tiring than online dating. I don’t know how Candace Cameron Bure does it. I needed a nap. 

I headed back to the romantic bed and breakfast for a brief rest so I could be alert for the Christmas tree lighting later – my last chance to find love.  

Back in my room I browsed Twitter and discovered two offers for romantic set-ups. Maybe Hallmark needs to update its storylines and this is really how romance happens today, I thought. But I had already put on sweatpants. The small-town boy repairing the family cottage would have to wait.

A couple hours later I did change and went back into town for the tree lighting. Dozens of people were already gathered around the stately spruce on the edge of Veterans Park. I found parking farther away and walked along the wooden decorations set up around the square – Santa’s Toy Shop, Santa in a locomotive pulling cars filled with toys, a snowman family, a sign on each corner marking Elkhorn as the Christmas Card Town. Some of the decorations are more than 50 years old, and many were made by local high school students.  

The middle school choir began singing Christmas carols as I arrived at the tree, and Santa wasn’t too far behind. Someone started counting down from 10, and at zero he flipped the switch to turn on the lights. Everyone clapped, cheered and rushed to get a photo with Santa in front of the tree before he left the square via a horse-drawn carriage. It was all very Hallmark.

I drove back to the bed and breakfast through a blanket of fog, the end of my time in Elkhorn drawing near without an eligible Christmas tree farm owner or prince from a made-up foreign country in sight.  

I didn’t find love in Wisconsin’s Christmas Card Town – and in all seriousness, I wasn’t trying too hard to find it – but I did find a quintessential Wisconsin small town that was full of the “cliches” that make Christmas (and those Christmas movies) great.

Elkhorn might not be the scene of a Hallmark movie anytime soon, but it certainly makes for a great Christmas card. And judging by all the kids who were at the tree lighting, it’s been the scene of at least a few love stories. 

Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.

RELATED:5 Hallmark-worthy Wisconsin small towns to visit during the holidays


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