by Marcy Breffle, Education Coordinator
Ask any Atlantan of a past generation about their memories of growing up in the city during the holidays, and chances are you will hear the words “Great Tree,” “Pink Pig,” or “Rich’s Department Store.” Considered a southern institution, Rich’s was the shopping destination in Atlanta for two centuries. The retail giant is often associated with nostalgic memories of the holidays, namely its traditions of lighting a Christmas tree on the rooftop of the downtown Atlanta flagship store and a high-flying monorail ride that delighted children of all ages. The story of Rich’s is intertwined with the story of Atlanta, and that narrative begins with one man: a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, enterprising entrepreneur, and Oakland Cemetery resident, Morris Rich.
Morris Rich was born in Hungary as Mauritius Reich in 1847. Mauritius and his brother William immigrated to the United States in 1859 and settled in Cleveland. The pair anglicized their surnames from Reich to Rich (and Mauritius changed his first name to Morris) and found employment as salesmen. Two younger brothers, Daniel and Emanuel, eventually joined William and Morris in the United States. As legal aliens, the brothers could not be forced into military service, so the four avoided serving during the Civil War. As the bloody conflict tore the country apart, the brothers traveled around Ohio to sell their wares. After the Civil War ended, the Rich brothers left Ohio and made their way south to war-torn Georgia in search of new opportunities.
In 1867, 26-year-old Morris borrowed $500 from William to open a dry goods store at 36 Whitehall Street. Located near Atlanta’s railroads, Whitehall Street was the growing city’s retail center. M. Rich and Co. prospered in its early years, setting itself apart from other retailers by allowing customers to buy items on credit or barter for goods with chickens, eggs, and other farm produce. Morris’s brothers, Daniel and Emanuel, later joined the growing enterprise and the business was renamed M. Rich and Bros. Co. The business continued to expand throughout the end of the 19th century, and the store moved several times to new locations on Whitehall Street. In 1924, M. Rich and Bros. Co. moved to its flagship store at 45 Broad Street. Located between Alabama Street and Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), Rich’s remained a popular downtown shopping destination for Atlantans for the next several decades.
The holiday celebrations associated with Rich’s flagship store were initiated by Morris Rich’s successors. In 1948, a 70-foot pine tree was placed on the roof of the downtown department store, decorated with lights and ornaments, and lit on Thanksgiving night. Over the years, the Lighting of the Great Tree became an Atlanta tradition. Large crowds turned out every year to enjoy holiday festivities and listen Christmas carols sung by choirs. Thousands of lights would illuminate at the highest note of “O Holy Night,” and the tree would remain lit until New Years Eve.
Another beloved Rich’s holiday tradition is the Pink Pig. Installed in 1956, the Pink Pig was a child-size monorail that hung from the ceiling of the Rich’s toy department. The front car of the pink monorail featured a pig’s face, and the caboose was designed with a curly tail. The ride moved to the roof of the department store in 1965, and a second monorail was installed. The two trains were known as the Pink Pig Flyers, and were named Priscilla” and “Percival” in the 1970s.
Rich’s was purchased in 1976 and the downtown department store closed its doors in 1991. The Rich’s name disappeared in 2005, but the holiday traditions of the Great Tree and the Pink Pig continue today. The Great Tree moved to Underground Atlanta downtown, and then to Lenox Square Mall in Buckhead. After the downtown store closed, the Pink Pig moved to the Festival of Trees at the Georgia World Congress Center, an annual benefit for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The Pink Pig ride was discontinued in the mid-1990s, but Macy’s Department Store resurrected the holiday tradition in 2003 and introduced a redesigned train to the Atlanta public. Children can still ride the train today at Lenox Square Mall.
Morris Rich died in 1928, only a few years after the opening of the downtown Rich’s store. He was buried at Oakland Cemetery along with his brothers, Daniel (d. 1920) and Emanuel (d. 1897), and his parents, Joseph (d. 1885) and Rose (d. 1875). Joseph and Rose Rich are buried in Old Jewish Burial Grounds, the oldest of Oakland’s three Jewish burial sections. Emanuel and Morris are buried on Oakland’s Jewish Hill.
Visit the Rich family during Oakland’s general overview tour, “Sights, Symbols, and Stories of Oakland,” which is offered every weekend at 2 p.m.
Happy holidays from Historic Oakland Foundation!