Living Memory History: The Davenport Memorial Park Cemetery Christmas display

It started as a very small and simple display during December 1937. Just a manger near a waterfall and lights on two nearby trees. It became what was thought to be the nation’s largest Christmas display with thousands of families visiting by the carload in its peak years of the 1960s.

The idea of a Christmas display in Davenport Memorial Park Cemetery belonged to office manager and grounds supervisor, Raymond Groves. Groves had been hired by Memorial Park in 1933, just two years after the cemetery had been formed. By 1937, the cemetery had paved roads, an office building, lagoon with waterfalls, and a chime tower.  The park cemetery concept meant that no standing headstones were allowed which created the appearance of a vast open area. In the 1930s, the cemetery was surrounded by a mixture of farms, private residences, small businesses, and Pine Hill and Mt. Nebo cemeteries.

In a December 21, 1958 interview in The Morning Democrat, Groves reminisced that after the first year when no one complained, he just kept adding more lights to the trees around the lagoon. He thought what better place for a Christmas display than a cemetery.

The war years put an end to the lighting of the trees as no outdoor lights were allowed and later the materials used in string lights were needed for the war effort. It wasn’t until 1947 that string lights once again appeared in the cemetery’s trees and new flood lights lit the manger by the waterfall on the lagoon. String lights were added to the trees in Babyland (a special burial location for infants) and the main entrance to the cemetery. Christmas carols were also played from the chime tower at designated times in the evening.

The Democrat, November 8, 1942. Pg. 1

In 1948, a neon sign was placed on the chime tower that read “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men”. An estimated 200 blue lights were used in the trees surrounding the manger and lagoon. 1,000 lights were used in Babyland and to decorate the entrance. The Democrat and Leader newspaper reported on December 18, 1949 that over 900 cars had visited the display so far that year. A special policeman had been assigned at night to help direct traffic and Ray Groves was requesting people keep their car headlights on when viewing the display to help prevent accidents.

The Daily Times, December 13, 1949. Pg. 13

By 1950, a new manger scene was introduced along with 5,400 lights. The display now included four scenes starting with shepherds with their flock by a campfire, then a lone shepherd tending his flock, next three Wise Men on camels, and finally the manger scene which now included a neon star above it. Figures ranged from 12 to 15 feet in height. An estimated 20,000 cars were expected to drive through between December 17, 1950 and January 1, 1951. In the end, between 25,000 – 30,000 cars went through with an estimated 90,000 people viewing the display.

The Morning Democrat, December 16, 1951. Pg. 17

In 1957, the display opened December 18th and closed January 1, 1958. It reopened for one night on January 4th for the 5th annual camera night in which visitors could stop and take pictures of the displays. Otherwise photography was prohibited as it backed up the hundreds of cars that came through each night. There were fourteen displays in 1957 with 15,000 lights, the largest neon star in the Midwest measuring 10 feet across, and 17-foot high camels.

The Daily Times, December 19, 1957. Pg. 10

The display reached its height in attendance in the 1960s. It was so popular that airline pilots would route their flights at night over the cemetery so passengers could see the lights from above. The area around the cemetery was still not largely developed which allowed the lights to stand out in the winter darkness.

The Quad-City Times, December 21, 1968. Pg. 3

Every year, employees would start decorating with lights and putting up the displays in early November for a mid-December opening. By the 1970s, it took an estimated 1500 hours to set up and dismantle the display with the work spread among five cemetery workers. The display continued uninterrupted until 1973. That year an energy crisis across the nation turned off Christmas lights and kept displays packed away in many cities including Davenport. Thankfully, the display was able to return for 1974.

The Quad-City Times, November 27, 1973. Pg. 1

By December 1980, an estimated 17,000 bulbs helped light 12 scenes from the story of Christmas. Scenes in order from that year: the prophet writing at a desk, the angel and Mary, people traveling, Joseph and Mary traveling, the City of Bethlehem, the innkeeper and the inn, Shepherds and sheep, the angels and frightened shepherds, several angels with shepherds, the nativity and waterfall, the Wise Men, and the church. Additions that year were signs placed at each scene and a pamphlet with a brief description of each scene handed out to cars.

The Quad-City Times, December 16, 1977. Pg. 49

By 1998, only about 5,000 cars visited the display with an estimated 20,000 visitors. With numbers dropping, displays beginning to need extensive repair, and new holiday traditions such as Festival of Trees gaining popularity, Davenport Memorial Park Cemetery decided to end their Christmas tradition after 2001.

While the Davenport Memorial Park display no longer exists, its memory brings many who celebrate Christmas back to a time when families packed themselves into their cars to be amazed at the lights and displays of Christmas in a most solemn location.

Postcard c. 1960s or 1970s of Three Wise Men display – Davenport Memorial Park. Image courtesy of Amy D.

(posted by Amy D.)


  • The Daily Times, December 23, 1947. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, December 20, 1948. Pg. 5
  • The Davenport Democrat, December 13, 1949. Pg. 13
  • The Daily Times, December 13, 1949. Pg. 21
  • The Davenport Democrat, December 18, 1949. Pg. 17
  • The Daily Times, December 8, 1950. Pg. 37
  • The Democrat and Leader, December 17, 1950. Pg. 21
  • The Democrat and Leader, December 28, 1950. Pg. 2
  • The Democrat and Leader, January 2, 1951. Pg. 23
  • The Morning Democrat, December 2, 1951. Pg. 2
  • The Morning Democrat, December 21, 1958. Pg. 41
  • The Quad-City Times, December 18, 1973. Pg. 3
  • The Quad-City Times, December 12, 1980. Pg. 43
  • The Quad-City Times, December 14, 1999. Pg. 33
  • The Quad-City Times, November 29, 2002. Pg. 4
  • The Quad-City Times, December 3, 2003. Pg. 2

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