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History Of Milwaukee's Schuster's Parade Includes Live Reindeer And Streetcars

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Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society
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Milwaukee children watching the 1949 Schuster's Holiday Parade.

Parades are an essential part of the holiday season. Whether it’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or a local parade full of friends and neighbors, parades allow communities to celebrate through music, costumes and over the top floats.

For many years in Milwaukee, Schuster's Holiday Parade was the pinnacle of the season. From 1927 through 1961, the parade drew hundreds of thousands of people in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods and featured live reindeer at the head of Santa’s sleigh.

Historian John Gurda wrote about the tradition for this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

At the time, Schuster’s was the most successful department store in all of Milwaukee, despite not having any downtown locations. A large part of planning the parade was to get people to pass each of the three Schuster’s locations in Milwaukee and so, the route followed a seven mile stretch of the streetcar system.

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Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
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Decorations for the parade at 12th and Vliet Streets in 1939.

“On Third Street, King Drive, Vliet Street, as well as Mitchell. That’s a lot of real estate," says Gurda. "They had to use a variety of transfers, in terms of how a commuter might have used the streetcars, to get to all those locations. So it was something that attracted people from all parts of town."

Floats would each chose a different theme based around Christmas and be built to ride on the streetcar rails.

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Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
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One float on the streetcar rails during the 1943 Schuster's Holiday Parade.

“Cinderella, Peter Rabbit, Three Little Pigs, and all the kind of Christmas themes as well,” Gurda says.

Santa’s sleigh, with live reindeer, would follow the floats at the end of the parade. Gurda says that Schuster’s had the same reindeer for many years, but as with any animal, eventually they had to be replaced and in the later years, Santa’s sleigh was pulled by stuffed reindeer.

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Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
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Santa Claus and his live reindeer preparing for the 1946 Schuster's Holiday Parade.

As Milwaukee removed its streetcar tracks in favor of buses, the parade began to fade in popularity, eventually ending in 1961.

“It lost something of its magic, something of its allure, and probably the biggest change was that Schuster’s was purchased by Gimbel’s in 1962,” Gurda says.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.