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Otter Creek circa 1853
Former Jersey County Citizen Tells of a Long Ago Christmas
Has Always Opposed Public Christmas Trees From Boyhood
My boyhood home was in Western Illinois, in the backwoods county of Jersey, and in the most backwoods part of the county besides. At the time of which I write there was only about a mile of railroad in the county. The southeast corner thereof was just barely touched by the old Chicago, Alton and St. Louis railroad at a point some twenty five or thirty miles from where we lived. The trains occasionally converted a luckless razor-back hog into desiccated breakfast food, and then with defiant and exultant toots went on their reckless way. That was about all the railroad ever did for the primitive people of Jersey county. Of course we had no telegraph lines nor daily papers. Telephones had not been invented, nor that modern abomination of abominations, the automobile.
Among the many streams that watered the county was one named Otter Creek. It had two forks, called respective South Otter Creek and North Otter Creek. They united a few miles northwest of our home, and from thence the main stream flowed on in a northwesternly direction, and a few miles below the confluence of the two forks emptied into the Illinois river. My father’s farm was on the south side of the fork, and extended along the stream. Within the limits of South Otter and the main creek on the east and west was a scope of territory consisting of about sixty square miles. Sixty years ago it was the wildest roughest and most undeveloped portion of Jersey county. It contained only one little town, Grafton, situated at the mouth of the Illinois river, and chiefly noted for saloons, dogs and fist-fights. But since then, as I understand, it has changed much for the better. The country people of this particular tract, with only two or three exceptions that I remember, lived in log houses with mud and stick chimneys. They were simple, honest and unlettered people, and all very poor. The heads of families were principally from southern staes, in the main from Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. I always understood that they left their home and came to the north in order to get away from the baneful effects of African slavery, which they said brought a man under the ban of disgrace, where he had to earn a living by manual labor. Now between this pioneer region and the country lying within the two forks of Otter creek there was, socially, politically, financially and otherwise, a great gulf fixed. The land included within the two forks was what Byrd Clark or any other up-to-date real estate agent would call gently rolling, and was remarkably fertile. The farmers lived in frame houses, wore store clothes on Sunday, belonged largely to the Prebyterian church, and were stern and devout in their religious convictions and duties.
When the country was first settled this legality was heavily timbered, with all kinds of oak, hickory, black walnut, wild cherry and other cleared away, and the land was in a hard woods, which now had been high state of cultivation. This favored region was known as “Otter Creek Prairie,” while our side of the creek on the south, from its banks to the two rivers before mentioned, gloomed under the derisive title of “Whippoorwill Region.” It got this name from the copious numbers of sad birds in the night that abided in the breaks and barrens, and the broken and uneven character of the country. It was densely timbered and all manner of wild game was plentiful. The farms were just little clearing of just eight or ten acres each or less, hewed with heavy labor out of the primeval forest. And here dwelt the Whites (of blessed memory), the Claridges and Morgans, the Gilmores, the Rowdens, Stilwells and other of the alleged “mud-sill” type. Many of them “moved on” as the country opened up. The Rowdens came to Kansas in ’66, settleing on the Neosho river, near Erie. In religion the Rowden family were all hardshell Baptists by inheritance; in politics republicans from principle. The boys were young giants, fighters from frightersville, and dangerously quick on trigger. When one of them had his “feelins” hurt and stood still and simply smiled in a sad, sweet way, and his eyes turned the color of green flint, then look out! something was likely to happen, and usually did. Elmer House (the “dod gasten” of Kansas) will confirm this if necessary. He has heretofore slightly “teched” on it in his true-to-life piece “Society at Rowden’s Ford.”
Come to think of it, it seems to me that some of the Dabbses, too, lived on our side of the creek; if they did not they ought to have. They were originally from South Carolina, and were our kind of folks every day in the year.
For municipal purposes quite a large slice of the Van Dieman’s land, which “tuck in” the above named peasantry and several, was attached to and formed a part of Otter Creek township, the hub thereof and the bead center influence and power being Otter Creek Prairie aforesaid. As regards the distribution of township officers, we Whippoorwilliams might as well have been living in Honolulu or any other lulu. Otter Creek Prairie gobbled everying, even down to road overseer. My recollection is that one time, a year or so before the war, we brought out John Barnton’s dad for squire. He ran a saw-mill on Sampson’s branch, and was a good old man. We supported him south of the creek regardless of party, and “never dealt better in our lives, but all would not do.” He was beaten out of sight, and I think figured in the official returns merely under the head of scattering. And as for a boy on our side of the creek attempting to go with one of the prairie girls — why, the idea. I know whereof I speak, for I made one feeble effort the year before the war broke out, and — but what’s the use? Pass the lotus and let’s go.
But the youngsters of school age had at least one privilege, for which I am thankful, and shall be as long as I live. Our location was such that we had the legal right to go to school at the old Stone school house, the Athens of scholastic learning in the township. It was a commodious two-story building in the shape of an oblong square, built of cold gray native stone, and very crudely chinked and daubed with ineffectual plastering. I speak advisedly, for I used to pull chunks out to throw at dogs and things. But true it is, the school house was two miles from our home, and when the creek got high, which it frequently did, then we on the south side perforce had to stay at home, for there were no bridges. Then the prairie young ones, having no creeks to cross, would get ‘way ahead of us in our classes, and when we got in after the creek had run down, we had to go to the foot of every thing. ‘Twas ever thus. Personally I didn’t care except for the spelling class, and that did hurt. Some of them prairie fellers never would have got there if the dumbum creek had only toted faird.
As I remember it was in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-three that the incident occurred at the Old Stone school house I am now going to mention. I think that must have been the year, because I was only ten years old at the time, and I am going mainly by that. However, under all the circumstances of this case, a variance of a year or so will not be either material or prejudicial anyway, so we’ll call it fifty-three and let it go at that.
A short time before Christmas of that year it was given out officially in the school that there was to be a new, startling and hitherto unheardof event to take place in the school house on Christmas eve? There was to be a Christmas tree which would be loaded with presents for all good scholars, and which would be distributed by Santa Claus in person, and much more was announced to the same effect. The excitement and agitation that this intelligence stirred up among the children cannot be described; it must be left to the imagination. Of course we had some sort of Christmas doins’ at our house as far back as I can remember, but they always had been of the most simple nature. On Christmas morning each of us children would find in his socks by the chimney jamb, half a dozen of so sticks of striped candy, a pint or thereabouts of almonds and Brazil nuts and possibly an orange, and that ordinarily closed the case.
And now something was going to happend that was brand new, gorgeous and glittering, and to be carried out in a style of most royal munificence and barbaric splendor. I don’t say that I used just these words in describing to my father and mother what the function would be like, but I have no doubt that what I lacked in diction I made up in emphasis. My father listened in silence to my glowing account, and at the finish looked down and said “huh,” and my mother suddenly got exceedingly busy with the pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. I was astonished at their lack of interest and enthusiasm, and could not understand it. But I think I did later.
Well the Never-to-be-forgotten grand and glorious Christmas eve at last arrived. I was more than prompt and faithful that evening in doing my chores — bringing in the eggs, the light firewood kindlings and the like. I was so nervous and excited by reason of my joyous anticipation that I could hardly keep still a moment. My thoughts had fairly gone wild in regard to what my Christmas gift would be, but finally settled down to the conviction that it would be a nice book. As to the particular book, it seemed to me I probably would get a life of Washington or of General Francis Marion, or, ) joy unspeakable, a Robinson Crusoe. I certainly fully persuaded myself that it would be one of those three. The exercises were to begin at 8 o’clock, and as soon as our supper was over (of which I ate mighty little) I started for the school house. None of the other members of the family attended. When I arrived, the big hall (which included all of the second story of the school house) was filled with children, their relatives and friends. Everyone was talking and laughing at once, and the room just seemed to be overflowing with happiness and delight. At one end of the hall was something that looked to me like a fair-sized hay stack covered with white sheets, and Quincy Hull told me that under the sheets was the remarkable Christmas tree. Quince who in some way had been favored with a glimpse of it, further informed me that it was a great big sure-enough cedar Christmas tree, fresh and green from the bluffs of the Illinois river. Quince was my particular and only north side chum, but his folks lived some two miles below the creek and close to it, so they were looked upon as almost a part of us south-siders. And they were mighty good people anyhow, and Quince, the youngest son, was just the best and dearest schoolboy friend I ever had.
Dear old Quince! later he and I fought through the war for the Union together in the old 61st Illinois Infantry, and now he is, and has been for many years, sleeping his last sleep in a country graveyard out on a Kansas prairie.
But let’s return to the school house. Back of the Christmas tree was a curtain arrangement concealing from view that part of the hall, and from behind that curtain came noisy exclamation and loud bursts of laughter which indicated that some thrilling preparations were in train.
As the clock struck eight the school teacher came to the front, and was received with great clapping of hands and stamping of feet. He thereupon declaimed a piece of poetry about Christmas, which I suppose was very fine, but I was in such a fever of excitement about the Christmas tree and my expected present that I don’t remember anything about the teacher’s speech. He concluded, there was a tremendous ringing of sleigh bells back of the tree, its covering was suddenly removed by unseen hands, the curtain parted, and out came Santa Claus. He had on a long _?_ gown of some kind, all sprigged out with bunches of white wool, and fastened about his body with a belt with an immense buckle. He had a prodigious white beard and mustasche, and on his head something like a big white nightcap with a bobbin. And just look at the Christmas tree? It was a brilliant pillar of light by means of lighted candles set in little lanterns and carefully tied in and around the tree so as to avoid fire, and it was just loaded down with gifts. There were caps and capes, and scarfs and mittens, books and candies and toys, and tied-up packages containing I knew not what, and everything. We sprang to our feet and then on the benches and clapped our hands and fairly screamed with wonder and joy. None of us, as far as I know, had ever seen anything like this before. When the tumult had somewhat subsided, the distribution of the presents began. Assistants removed them from the tree and handed them one by one to Santa, who in a stentorian tone read from an attached slip of paper the name of the recipient. “Hush, now, be still — listen!” Here come the name: Rowena Curtis, Melissa Rogers, Anna Curtis, Reuben Curtis, Emma Rogers, Quincy Hull, Stephen Beck, Wright Beck, Anslam Terry, Albert Terry, Henry Terry, Henry Sisson, Frank Sisson, Susan Sisson, Nettie Hull and so on. As the name was announced the youngster thus called would rush forward, receive his gift, and return to his seat in a run with eyes blazing with joyous excitement. And still the names were called, and each one half a dozen times or more. There just seemed to be no end to Curtisses and Terrys and Sissons and Becks and Doughertys and Hugheses and Beemans and Nobels and McDows and other children whose parents lived in Otter Creek Prairie.
I listened with gasping eagerness to hear my name, but Santa didn’t come to it. But he surely would soon. Now the bright gifts began to thin out, and large patches of naked green appeared upon the tree. But my book (as I thought) was still there, so hope was not yet utterly extinguished. Now it is being taken from the tree, and I half arose from my seat all in a tremble. What! “John Curtis” said Santa, and a tall freckled-faced young fellow went forward, and was handed the book. (He is now a sedate and respectable doctor somewhere out in Morris county, Kansas). I gave a deep sigh and sank into my seat. But the tree was not yet entirely stopped, and I gripped my hands to the edge of my bench and bravely hoped and waited. The roll call went on. Santa was hurrying now; it was getting to be a matter of form with him; he was about done.
Can it be possible? The last package is gone. That hateful tree is standing in naked wretchedness, and I’ve got nothing. All around me the children had broken into happy, chattering groups, were comparing their gifts and all talking at once at the top of their voices. I very quietly arose from my seat, put on my old possum-skin cap, pulled it well down, and started for the head of the stairs. There was a big lump in my throat, and the candle lights seemed to kind of swim and glimmer, and somehow I couldn’t see things distinctly. (Don’t laugh; remember, I was only ten years old). I softly made my way outside. There I stopped a moment and looked up at the hall. It was all ablaze with light, and the uproar of happy voices was still resounding through the building. I turned my back on this scene of light and warmth, mirth and jollity, and started for my log cabin, two miles away in the woods. A heavy snow had fallen a few days previously, and it was yet deep on the ground and the night was bitter cold.
There were two routes from the school house that led to home. One was by the big road where it crossed the creek, thence up a hollow a short distance by an old country road, thence up another hollow by a private wagon road to our house. The other course was mainly by paths through the big woods. I didn’t want to see anybody which might have happened if I had gone by the big road. So I followed it but a little way, then left it and turned to the right at the old Wesley Chapel and its burying ground, where the rough grave stones of native rock were looking ghostlike above the snow. There I crossed a fence and down a ravine and on by the deserted cabin of Haywood Bartlett, where the big cedar grew, down a long ridge densely timbered with balck jack and post oak to the creek bottom, then across the creek on a footlog, and finally up another wooded ridge to home.
I had mighty little to say next morning at breakfast about the school Christmas tree, and I was glad that for some reason my father and mother were not inquisitive.
And this, kind gentlemen, ladies and all, is the story of my first and only attendance at a public Christmas tree, and as at present advised it will be my last. I haven’t yet gotten over that old experience, and somehow it hurts almost as bad today as it did sixty-seven years ago.
I am told that such things are differently managed now. I hope they are but the change came too late for me.
But, all the same, Bill Hawkins, the sable old factotum of Erie, and who doubtless sold for much more before the war than he would now, will have this year, as usual, among his other Christmas dinner “fixins,” a big pork roast and an ample supply of spare ribs in spite of the fact that old Bill will not pay a cent for them, neither will he get them off a public Christmas tree.
And now in the words of Tiny Tim, “May God bless us every one.”
Thanks to Marty Crull for this article. Source is probably the Jerseyville Republican, circa 1920.