Sisters Janice Maddux and Jeanne Thorson know the iconic red bells that hang over Whitefish every winter better than most anyone around.
For roughly the last six decades they’ve been sewing the fabric on the bells. By sewing two pieces of fabric together on a sewing machine and then placing it over the wire frame, along with some stapling and handstitching, they form the red bells that punctuate the green garland strung across downtown streets.
When the fabric on a group of the bells needed replacing again before the decorations went up the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Chris Schustrom asked the sisters again for their expertise.
Thorson, who along with her late husband John, owned Flathead Upholstery, were tasked the first year with putting new fabric on the wire frames that had been purchased from Kalispell. Mortician John Austin, who was the president of the Chamber of Commerce, purchased 20 bells for $1 a piece.
“My husband was the only one that showed up so he took me with him the next time to work on the bells,” Thorson said.
“I didn’t get a choice either,” Maddux said. “They needed help.”
They recall figuring out how to sew and fit the red covers on the bells, then they were helped by the wives of train workers who helped sew the fabric on the metal wire.
“John tweaked it until it looked really good,” Maddux said. “Now it fits beautifully.”
There’s a great amount of nostalgia to the lighted garland that is strung across the streets of downtown Whitefish.
The sisters seem happy to help coming to the Roy Duff Memorial Armory, where the winter decorations are stored, a few times a week to work with Schustrom on sewing the fabric. They’ve been brought in before when new bells have been added or they needed recovering.
“We didn’t plan on doing it so many times over the years,” Maddux says with a smile.
The sisters have a sense of pride when they see the bells hanging up downtown, spotting the ones they worked on.
“It’s a family tradition that goes on,” Thorson said.
Sticking with the red fabric, Schustrom says, makes the bells keep the color longer and is more durable than plastic. Fellow volunteer Trek Stephens also helped cut out the fabric for the bells and for the first time Schustrom this fall began sewing so he would know how to replace the fabric on the bells in the future.
“I’m learning,” he said. “I guess I’m committed now. We learned how to cut the patterns and get the fabric over the wire dome. It’s our generation’s time again to step up.”
It takes about a half hour to sew the smaller bells and the larger ones take a bit longer. This year, 49 bells received new fabric, some of them had fabric on them that was more than 30 years old. In total there’s about 65 large bells and 45 small bells that hang around town.
The fabric came from the same company that originally supplied it for the bells so many years ago.
Two years ago, Thorson and Maddux donated their commercial sewing machine to Whitefish Shines, the nonprofit led by a group of volunteers that raises funds for and puts up the decorations. The original scissors that have been used in cutting out the fabric for the bells all these years was also used again this year.
Whitefish Shines volunteers over the years have added more strings of garland and more wreaths around downtown. This year, a few new strings went up around Depot Park. Decorations and garland are made by hand with a replacement schedule for each item. Each year volunteers spend weeks checking the roughly 10,000 bulbs in the decorations and preparing them to light up downtown.
The Whitefish Community Foundation this year provided a $2,000 grant to replace the fabric on the bells and community donations keep the tradition alive each year. The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau provided a grant for additional strings of garland for around Depot Park.
The decorations began with the red bells, but later the snowflakes, snowmen and lanterns were added along with the garland strung across downtown streets that have become an iconic winter scene for Whitefish.
Many of the original decorations are still used today with volunteers making continual repairs. The Santa Claus that hangs prominently over Central Avenue is one of those original decorations.
Volunteers recall that the decorations likely made their first appearance in Whitefish in the late 1950s or early 1960s. A December 1959 article in the Pilot mentions the chamber leading the decorations of the town. Volunteers put up Christmas trees and volunteers made welcome plaques to hang.
The project was originally started by the chamber, but then later volunteers calling themselves Whitefish Decorating Committee took over. Today, Whitefish Shines leads the effort.
Hanging the lights have become a tradition of its own as volunteers of all ages show up to put the decorations up on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving no matter the weather. Local utility companies and the City of Whitefish sends workers and bucket trucks to assist.
Schustrom says the community has been supportive of the project.
“It’s a great tradition,” he said.
Donations for the project can be mailed to, Whitefish Shines P.O. Box 695 Whitefish, MT 59937.