It was a pioneer Christmas in ItascaPublished 9:18am Friday, December 16, 2011
Column: Between the Corn Rows
Librarian Linda Evenson of the Freeborn County Historical Museum has found an interesting news article from a 1930 issue of the Tribune about one of the very first observances of Christmas in this county.
This article was based on the life of Clara Matilda Colby. She was born in Lyons, Walworth County, Wis., (between Beloit and Milwaukee) on March 14, 1852, the youngest of eight girls and one boy. The family moved by covered wagon in May 1855 to Caledonia. The following March they moved to a farmsite northwest of Albert Lea near Itasca.
Here’s what the article said about Clara’s initial Christmas in the county, “She was a tot of four when she first hung up her little home knitted stocking by the big rough fireplace, in the hope good old St. Nick would find her in the new land, even if there were no neighbors within miles and Indians prowled about unexpectedly.”
If I may digress right here, there’s a questionable statement in that paragraph. Not far from the Colby place were the new towns of Itasca and Albert Lea. Now, let’s resume the narrative,
“Santa did find her, not only the first year but all the years that came after. He brought her big red apples and gingerbread babies and doughnut men, which were as precious as pearls and rubies to the little pioneer girl. Once there was a big rag doll too, with lifelike eyes and a fine new calico dress.
“But best of all there was always a Christmas tree. It wasn’t an evergreen such as we have nowadays, but a little jack oak that had been cut in the nearby forest. It was gaily hung with long strings of popcorn that little Clara had helped her big sisters string, and with shiny cranberries in place of gaudy tinsel balls. There wasn’t any tissue (wrapping) paper in those days of course, but it was never missed at all, when on Christmas Eve the presents were undone by the family gathered for the occasion, with sometimes neighbors as company.”
OK, it’s time for another digression. First, there’s a indication in the last sentence of the quotation that this family soon had neighbors. Second, a commentary about the jack oak topic is appropriate at this point.
I have a theory that evergreen trees weren’t native for this area 155 years ago. During the years since then the evergreens or pines and so many other trees have been added to the area’s landscape. The late Don Wedge was an expert on trees, but regretfully I can’t check with him on these details.
To find out what a jack oak is, I checked with two Google listings. The answer I found says this tree is a scrubby oak that grows in the Midwest. Another name for this mostly small tree is blackjack oak.
Once again let’s resume the narrative.
“There was much warmth and laughter around the great fireplace and nobody cared that the drifts were piled up several feet high outside and there were no roads to town except uneven and ditchy paths made by plunging ox teams. There wasn’t much of a town anyway. When (she) came here with her parents in 1856, Albert Lea boasted only five scattered log shacks.
“But no store was necessary to furnish the big Christmas day dinner the family always had. Turkey and all kinds of garden vegetables, apples and nuts, were raised on the place. Sometimes there were cakes and pies, but sugar was almost impossible to get and white flour not so common. There was no Christmas candy in those early days, but the children cared little for that, since wild bees made fine sweets.”
There will be more about Clara Matilda Colby Thomas (her married name) in the next column, plus a continuing musical legacy in her memory that will be part of Christmas services in a local church.
With just three exceptions, Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.