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From At the Grass Roots, Comprising “The Christmas of 1883,” and Other Vagrant Sketches, by Elmer House (Dodd Gaston), with Cover Design and Frontispiece by Albert T. Reid, Topeka: Monotyped by Crane & Company, 1905; pp. 9-19.
THE CHRISTMAS OF 1883.
The first Christmas that stamped itself cleanly on my memory was that of 1883. It is not that I am not old enough to remember Christmas days that preceded it, but because the circumstances surrounding the Christmas of 1883 were so new and unusual that they let an impression on my boyish mind.
We had come to Kansas in a covered wagon two or there months previously, from a comfortable home in a prosperous and settled community of an eastern state. I shall never forget the house into which we moved. The advance agent of the plow and mowing-machine who homesteaded the claim had built originally a two-room dwelling. Later on he put a mortgage on the claim and added a shed room on the south. With the advent of the next year’s baby he put on a second mortgage and added a shed room on the west.
10 A peculiarity of the shed room on the west was that it was higher than the original house, and the roof having but one slope, it presented a most grotesque appearance. In the front door of the house some jackleg carpenter, probably the homesteader himself, had cut a hole and into the hole he had nailed an old-fashioned window-sash containing three small panes of glass. I was too young to know anything about artistic effect, but that window-sash in the front door always jarred on me, and when, a year or two later, a new house was built, I chopped the door into kindling with fiendish glee.
The schoolhouse was a mile and a half away across the prairie. There were no fences worth mentioning and the road zigzagged across the prairie at the convenience of the person who happened to be using it at the time. I started to school the Monday after we got settled in our new home, and by the time Christmas came round I was established in the 11 community. Which is to say that I had been whipped by the teacher, had fallen in love with a girl, and had stood on the schoolhouse grounds with a chip on my shoulder for twenty minutes one day during the noon hour, daring anybody of my size to knock it off. I also had an engagement to fight Bill Fought, a neighbor boy, the first time we got far enough out of sight of the teacher and our respective fathers to insure an unlimited round go. We finally fought at the skating-pond a few weeks later, and bill made a doormat of me. Two or three year later, having grown very rapidly meanwhile, I evened things up by whipping both Bill and his twin brother, Grant, at one sitting.
There were no churches in the immediate vicinity, and the Christmas tree was given at the schoolhouse. Preceding the distribution of presents there was a literary program by the pupils of the school and the young people of the 12 neighborhood. I was down to “speak a piece.” It was the first time I had ever appeared on a literary program, and the thing was of tremendous moment to me.
They tried to get me to speak a “Dear Little Willie” sort of selection, but I wouldn’t stand for it. I had just begun to dig into Shakespeare, Pilgrim’s Progress and other literature of the heavy-weight class, and it’s a wonder I didn’t insist on reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy. But the thing I had set my heart on was “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and they finally let me have my way.
An enormous crowd came to the Christmas tree, and the schoolhouse was packed and jammed with people when the preliminaries began. Up to that time I had been rather buoyant over the thought that I was to recite, but when quiet settled down upon the crowd my nerve deserted me and I fell into a blue funk. I would have gone home leaving the “Light Brigade” to its fate, but I had 13 not the courage to slink from the schoolhouse. And so with the heavy hand of woe upon my soul, and the palsy of fright benumbing my limbs, I sat waiting for my turn to speak.
Finally, after what seemed hours to me, although it was probably not more than ten minutes, since I was the third performer on the program, I heard my name called and managed to make my way to the platform, although I never had any subsequent recollection of the incidents attending the journey. And in a voice which sounded to me as though it were coming out of Kincade’s cornfield a quarter of a mile away, I started the “Light Brigade” into action. I halted it almost immediately in the teeth of a murderous fire. For I forgot the thing and stood there gibbering at the crowd without being able to recall a single word. The horror, the chagrin and the shame of that moment are still real to me, although it happened more than 14 twenty years ago. At last I caught sight of the teacher and asked him to excuse me, although in the light of maturer years and better judgment I can not see what the teacher had to do with it. The teacher, however, expressed the opinion that I was excusable, and I got down from the improvised platform somehow and buried my ignominy and shame in the crowd. I am not much of a military tactician, but I know I left the “Light Brigade” in bad shape to resist the attack of an enemy, and I apologize for it.
Most Christmas trees nowadays get along with the assistance of a Santa Clause, but that one had not only a Santa Claus, but a Kriss Kringle as well. In later years I have pondered over the Kriss Kringle business a good deal, but never found out who he was or why he was mixed up with that Christmas tree. It was considered necessary that both Santa Claus and Kriss Kringle should 15 be humorists of a high order, to the end that they might make the crowd roar with quips and jests and jokes. So there was considerable rivalry between neighboring communities to secure high-class humorists for the occasion, and if one had the reputation of being funny he was often spoken for months ahead. Our Santa Claus that year was Sam Turner, and Jim Willison was the Kriss Kringle. They were supposed to be about the best in the business, and they had the crowd going from the start. I will admit that they tickled me nearly to death. But I knew them both very well in after years, and never heard either say anything particularly funny.
Rivalry between neighboring communities did not halt with the selection of the humorists who served the occasion. Insofar as the Doane and Dodd districts were concerned — the Dodd district adjoined the Doane on the east — it extended to the value of the presents on the tree. 16 The Doane folk were mostly from New York and Massachusetts, and the looked down upon the people of the Dodd neighborhood, who had moved in from Indiana and Illinois. The Dodd folk reciprocated the feeling. It was probably true that the Doane neighborhood had more education and culture than its neighbor on the east, but the Dodd district people had more money and fewer mortgages on their land.
it was generally admitted that so far as the Christmas of 1883 was concerned, the Dodd tree won the pennant. For upon its branches, in addition to the usual assortment of handkerchiefs, photograph albums, earmuffs, pocketbooks, nubias, mittens, pocket-knives, popcorn and candy, there hung also a bureau and a sewing-machine. The Doane people had to admit they were beaten, as no present on their tree cost more than $5, but they claimed Dodd has taken an unfair advantage, inasmuch as the district 17 had combined with the Olive Branch neighborhood in giving the tree.
The event of the evening at Doane which did most to stimulate gossip was extraneous in its nature. Herschel Meeker, one of the neighborhood beaus, brought Ella Talbott to the schoolhouse in a top buggy. It was the first top buggy in the neighborhood, and the incident created a great deal of comment both at the tree and afterward. The attitude of the neighborhood toward the innovation is best shown by the remark of a neighbor woman who called on mother a few days afterward. She said she’d “bet anything that Joe Meeker mortgaged his claim to buy Herschel that buggy.”
I did not go home with the family after the tree. I had heard there was to be a dance in the schoolhouse, and under the pretense of cutting across the prairie and getting the fires started before the family reached home, I eluded father and 18 sneaked back to watch the dance. I didn’t get home until two o’clock. What happened to me next day is not a matter for extended reference. I had never before seen a dance, and I was greatly interested. Our family was made up of strict Methodists, who believed dancing to be a device of the devil.
A good many people stayed for the dance. Everybody danced the quadrilles, but only a few could schottische, and the waltzing was confined to one couple. When the orchestra played a waltz — the orchestra was a violin and a bull fiddle — everybody sat back and watched this highly accomplished couple. They were strangers, apparently, and I never found out who they were.
The dance was given for the benefit of the library association, and netted six dollars. Between periods of drying peaches and making soft soap the women were trying to get together enough money to buy a library. They were always giving 19 socials in summer and plays at the schoolhouse in winter for the benefit of a library — admission ten cents. A good many years later the library association broke up, so many of the members having either died or moved away that it was no longer possible to maintain an interest in the organization. When it disbanded there was $18 in the treasury.
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