Brandel sisters share the old Cokato store’s original nativity scene
By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN - Each Christmas season, Brandel sisters Dorene Erickson and Julie Gutknecht take turns setting up the old Fitzgerald’s nativity scene in their home.
Unwrapping the 1950s Japanese hand-painted pieces reminds the women of the fun times they had working at the former downtown Cokato junior department store.
Julie began working at Fitzgerald’s in 1965, while her little sister, Dorene, who could hardly wait to work there, began in 1970.
At that time, the store was owned by Neil and Janet Fitzgerald, who purchased it from Neil’s parent’s, Glenn and Clara, in 1961.
Working at Fitzgerald’s, one of the most coveted aspects of the job was setting up the 12-piece Christmas scene in the store’s window the day after Thanksgiving.
“On Fridays we got to do fun things. One thing at Christmastime was whoever was working the day after Thanksgiving got to pull out the nativity set,” Dorene said.
Another thing Dorene remembers at Fitzgerald’s during Christmas time was the bulk Brach’s candy that would come in.
“The chocolate was almost still soft, it was so fresh,” she said.
“Oh, it was hard to keep your hands out of them,” she added.
The sisters also recall wrapping a lot of Christmas gifts because they were told it was cheaper than bagging the items.
They didn’t complain because they loved wrapping, and still do to this day.
“I could do it with one hand,” Julie said.
Having a job at Fitzgerald’s was like living in Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show, Dorene said.
Though Neil and Janet were sticklers for cleanliness, they taught their young employees good work ethics, such as how to get the job done right and good customer service.
“We had so much respect for Neil and Janet,” Julie said.
With the couple not having any kids of their own, Neil and Janet didn’t hire students until they took a chance with Julie and Mary (Engel) Forsythe.
“We took a chance on you gals,” Janet told Julie and Mary years back, “and it was the best experience we could have had.”
To ensure students saved part of their paychecks for future use, Neil took the liberty of setting up individual savings accounts for them. Each paycheck, a portion of their wages was deposited into their own accounts and given to the workers upon graduation.
The Brandel sisters became quite close with the Fitzgeralds, and because they had no children of their own, “They kind of adopted us,” Dorene said.
With the family living two miles out of town, the Brandel sisters were able to spend the night at the Fitzgeralds’ house during snowstorms.
After Neil died of cancer in 1975, Janet sold the store to Eloise and Norman Ponsford, who converted it into a Ben Franklin.
Then, in 1978, Janet moved to Maple Grove, selling their house along Highway 12 to Dorene and her husband, Gordy.
When Ben Franklin closed in 1991, an auction took place, at which time Dorene noticed the beloved nativity scene wasn’t on the auction block.
Soon after, it was found that Janet sold the nativity scene to long-time employee Lillian Cole.
Knowing how much the Brandel sisters wanted that nativity scene, she then sold it to them for $150.
Julie and Dorene both paid $75 and now have “joint-ownership” of the dearly- loved nativity scene.
Whichever sister unpacks her Christmas decorations after Thanksgiving and finds the nativity scene, they know they had it the year before.
This year happens to be Dorene’s year to display the nativity scene.
Looking at it in hindsight, Julie said, back then there weren’t any qualms about a nativity scene in a commercial store window.
Julie wonders if nowadays, a store would feel comfortable having the nativity scene as their focus for decorating during Christmas time.
“To me, having anything but the nativity as the focus would be an insult,” Julie said.