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Peoria store brings back a unique piece of local holiday nostalgia

Urban Artifacts co-owner Jon Walker shows off the Bergner's Talking Christmas Tree on display at the store on Sheridan Road in Peoria.
Joe Deacon
Urban Artifacts co-owner Jon Walker shows off the Bergner's Talking Christmas Tree on display at the store on Sheridan Road in Peoria.

An iconic piece of central Illinois holiday history that seemed lost forever is once again on display in Peoria.

Urban Artifacts, the vintage souvenir and antique shop on Sheridan Road, has one of the old Bergner's Talking Christmas Trees set up for viewing.

Jon Walker, who co-owns Urban Artifacts with his wife Angie, said the department store had around a dozen Talking Christmas Trees that were used at several locations, beginning in the mid-1960s.

“They quit using them and everybody thought they were all long gone; they had been damaged or destroyed or thrown out or whatever. So, I think the thought was that nobody would ever see another talking Christmas tree again,” said Walker.

“Last year, a couple from up in the LaSalle-Peru area called me and had one in the barn that they had acquired, and asked if we would be interested in taking it and displaying it. Of course, we said, ‘Sure we would,’ and I ran out there the next day with my trailer and picked it up. So we've had it for several months and brought it out here Thanksgiving.”

The unique decorative display developed into a holiday tradition for generations of gift-seeking children in Peoria and other central Illinois communities.

“There would be somebody literally hiding in the tree, talking to the kids and asking them what they wanted for Christmas,” said Walker. “There was one here locally at the Sheridan Village Bergner’s; there was one at the downtown Bergner’s and the Pekin Bergner’s — all the Bergner’s had them.”

Walker said the tree at his store is most likely from somewhere north of Peoria.

“So, the one that you'd see up there and the one you'd see it Peoria, they were all basically the same tree. So people when they see this one, it looks like exactly like what they remember seeing at the Sheridan Village store,” he said.

Walker said he’s been buying and selling antiques since he was 8 years old; the Urban Artifacts store has been open for about 11 years. He said they predominantly feature collectibles and vintage goods, but also carry some more recent products.

“We're not your traditional antique shop. We don't have your grandma's antiques as much as we do maybe your Baby Boomer parents’ antiques or younger,” said Walker. “We try to have items that somebody in their late 20s ... might even enjoy and on up. We’ve tried to have a wide variety of things for sale.

“Definitely a lot of pop culture, a lot of advertising, a lot of old toys. We like the mid-century items from the '50s and '60s; that whole vibe with the kind of the Atomic Age furnishings. But like I said, we’ve tried to have stuff for everybody, too. So we've got some older primitive tools and things like that, and we've got (Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtles. So we're all over the place.”

Personally, Walker said he’s most fond of items with ties to the Peoria community.

“We've manufactured so much in the Peoria area and made so much in the Peoria area over the years,” he said. “There's a lot of items out there that relate to Peoria — things that were made here or brewed here or distilled here or manufactured here. Everything from Avery Tractors to Pabst Blue Ribbon to Gipps Beer to Caterpillar. The list goes on and on and on of the things that Peoria made.”

As for the Talking Christmas Tree, Walker said he’s excited and honored to have the opportunity to bring the tradition back to Peoria.

“It wouldn't mean much just to have one and have it in your own collection, hidden away somewhere. I think the fact that we're able to have it here on public display at Christmas time in Peoria is huge,” he said. “It'll be something that we'll bring out every year and display it, and people can bring their kids out and bring their relatives in that remember it, or tell their kids about it, and share some of their memories.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.