First Christmas Tree
Reproduced from The Record magazine, December 1896
The story of the first Christmas tree at Fargo is the story of the first in North Dakota, outside the military posts and Indian agencies. The winter was not specially remarkable, the winter of 1873-4, when the entertainment was given, though it followed the fearful blizzard of January, 1873, when the foundation was laid for Mrs. Smith's charming story of the Montrose family recently published in The Record. There was a heavy snow storm in October which soon passed. November was not specially disagreeable. December brought the usual winter weather. January and February were very pleasant and the spring of 1874 opened early, and that year the splendid reputation of North Dakota as an agricultural country was in part established through the operations of Chapin, McHench, Whitman, and the few other first farmers.
This story is told by one of the old-timers. We will give it in his own language:
Before this Christmas the few people on this side of the Red river had gone to Moorhead for church service, and for all church observances, but at the meeting held in Moorhead for the purpose of arranging for the Christmas tree of 1873, the Fargo representatives felt aggrieved at the action taken by the Moorhead people as the Fargoites wished the tree to be for pleasure of all children of whatever church or creed or no church at all, and the feeling in Moorhead was for a tree for the children more particularly of church people, but we of Fargo, being outvoted, came home feeling we were not bidden to the feast. A few of us were talking the matter over when J.R. Chapin said, “Why don't you have a Christmas tree of your own, the largest and the best. I will give ten dollars towards it.” With such a start we could not do otherwise than go ahead and have a Fargo Christmas tree.
John Jennings telegraphed to Brainerd for two of the finest trees that could be got into a box car. The railroad boys there got the trees and loaded them without any charges, and J.C. Carter engineer and John Foster got them through to Fargo without freight charges.
The box car was side tracked in front of the old Headquarters hotel, but the next morning our beautiful Christmas trees, the first to be brought over the river, were gone. Some one had stolen them away, and a fall of snow hid all traces of where they had been taken. A careful search was made for the trees, and a committee visited Moorhead on a still hunt, for we felt sure some of the Moorhead boys had done us the trick, but the trees could not be found.
At a meeting held that night, presided over by Capt. Egbert, it was decided to hang in effigy the Moorhead men suspected of the theft. A.J. Durham attended to the hanging, and the bodies were appropriately labeled, and the next morning the Red river bridge was decorated with a number of seemingly dead men. Some one on the early morning train out of Fargo saw them hanging there and telegraphed the Associated Press that as he came over the river that morning six dead men were hanging from the bridge timbers, undoubtedly the work of the northwest regulators.
At 10 a.m. a locomotive and box car draped in mourning moved down to the bridge, followed by a large procession on foot. The bodies were taken down, and while the muffled locomotive bell tolled mournfully they were buried in a snow drift with elaborate ceremonies, including a sermon and the singing of funeral dirges.
The next night the trees were returned to the car and from there taken to what is now No. 27, on Front Street . A careful canvas was made to see how many children were under 14 years of age there were and another to raise funds to buy the presents and decorate the trees. Between three and four hundred dollars were easily raised in cash and the result was two of the finest decorated trees Fargo has ever witnessed. As there was plenty of cash come one suggested buying silver half dollars for each child under 14. N.K. Hubbard, then of Moorhead , had just received a large amount of silver which was just beginning to circulate, and as few of the children had ever seen a silver piece, these were designed as keepsakes for them to remember the occasion. A hole was punched in each piece so they could be hung in the branches of the tree, and with two large locomotive headlights throwing their strong light from behind, the trees with the silver trimmings presented a sight calculated to make any child happy, and they were a happy lot, although no prayer was said nor song sung.
John Jennings was Santa Claus, and as his ladder broke in his first attempt to climb into a window, a speech was made to quiet the children, and they were assured old Santa Claus had been sighted coming over the Pembina hills and that he would soon arrive. How they did yell, when he did appear!
The Wild Rice band of six pieces furnished the music for the occasion, and after the children had enjoyed a Christmas to their hearts' content, the older children, and this included everyone, turned to and danced till broad daylight in the morning.
Years have come and years have gone. Many of the children who participated in the first Christmas tree at Fargo, twenty-three years ago, are the fathers and mothers who are now providing entertainment for their own little ones.
It is a glad time, is the Christmas tide, when the hearts of all are softened towards relatives and friends, and when the fatherless and distressed are not forgotten, at least not by Him who have His son that the world might be made better by His sacrifice.
How often are we reminded of our duty to God, and yet who can add to God's wisdom or strength, or in any manner contribute to His pleasure? When He gave His son for humanity, and to make our sacrifices for men rather than for God! What higher, what nobler example could He have given? Christ sacrificed because of his purity, because of his love for men and his hatred or evil in order that attention might be attracted to His noble qualities, and human hearts taught that only through being like Him can the human soul be raised to His plane! Christ sacrificed that human beings may be lifted up on the cross of human trials, and human spirits exalted and made fit companions of their elder brother who has gone before.
He left no written words. He stooped and wrote in the sand on the sea shore, but the quickly returning tide effaced it; but “let him that is without sin cast the first stone,” words that fell from his lips as the accused was brought before him for condemnation, taught us to examine our own hearts rather than to inquire too closely into the sins of others. And then “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Better to give the things needed to the fatherless and the distressed, who can make no return, than to spend our substance for rich presents to those of whom we expect a return.
May many happy Christmases be yours?