Christmas in 1870


The following Christmas, that of 1870, is described as follows by J. P. Short, old-time Winfield resident, who still resides here:

Early in 1870 Col. E.C. Manning laid out a main street and a few blocks of land on his claim near the Walnut River, the north star being the surveyor's compass. Soon after he erected a two-story log building in which he opened a general store.

Settlers came pouring in from the older parts of the state and hundreds of farmers with their families drove through in wagons from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and other western states; many came to the towns via the tri-weekly stage line running down the valley from Emporia, the nearest railroad town; some came on horses and a few walked.

Probably two-thirds of these first settlers had been Union soldiers in the Civil War and were used to roughing it. They made ideal pioneers and soon had fine farms opened up and in cultivation.

With this prelude of the county's first settlement, I approach my subject. The first Christmas in Winfield after the town appeared on the map was in the year 1870. At that time the population was about 150, and most of them were young men and unmarried; there were no old people and but few children. About a dozen buildings were on the main street with a few small houses further back and more were being built. Many people lived in wagons, tents and in dugouts on the river banks. Most of the storekeepers lodged and many cooked their meals in the store buildings. Anything that had a roof was full of people.

At times more than a dozen men could be found sleeping on the floor of the printing office of the town=s first newspaper, the Cowley County Censor, over the log store; while across the street in the town=s first hotel, the Walnut Valley House, built and conducted by the writer, on stormy nights after the beds and floor were full of people, the surplus sleepers were hung on hooks so >twas said.

There were no church organizations along to hold regular services or Sunday schools nor were there suitable places to meet. It was 100 miles to the nearest railroad and we had to furnish our own amusements, which consisted mostly of dancing. When a store room was completed it was generally dedicated with a dance, though often there was preaching in the same by some traveling preacher who might happen along, the congregation sitting on the planks among the shavings in the unfinished buildings.; I do recall the Rev. Winfield Scott, for whom this town was named, holding such services in the hotel building about the time of its completion.

These dedication dances were very informal but enjoyable affairs. On a certain November day, when the floor of a small store room was nearly laid, the owner sent out word to the boys to get busy and hit the light fantastic toe that night in his building. Before dark candles were sought with which to light the room. Kerosene was 75 cents per gallon and little used. It was found that the few stores were out of candles and Douglas, the nearest town having them, was 20 miles away.

Did they declare the dance off? They did not! These young pioneers were too resourceful. Buffalo tallow was plenty to a quantity was melted into tin basins, strips of cotton cloth twisted in to the melted tallow and when hardened and lit, they gave some light. In due time it was "on with the dance, let joy be unconfined."

As Christmas approached Tony Boyle's store, which stood on part of the site of the present Dauber block, was nearing completion and it was decided to hold a grand ball in the same on Christmas night, with supper at the Walnut Valley House. All commenced to make preparations for this special occasion.

Then, there were no laid out roads and not a light vehicle in town. People got around in farm wagons and on ponies. Most men owned a Texas or Indian pony which cost from 10 to 20 dollars. A favorite place to picket them was around the present courthouse square. There were few young ladies in town and on Christmas afternoon many young men could be seen riding one pony and leading another with sidesaddle, going out into the country to get a girl for the ball.

The ballroom floor was about twenty by forty. The glass not having arrived from the railroad, the window sashes were covered with cotton sheeting to keep out the cold. The seats were pine planks resting on nail kegs ranged along the walls. A small store lamp was suspended from the center of the ceiling. This light was increased by candles placed on brackets projecting from the side walls.

Old-timers will remember that these candles had on various occasions, and with occasion, the so-to-speak habit of frequently discharging a spoonful of melted was and grease on the head and shoulders of those sitting underneath. But as the ladies did not wear puffs, rats, or decollete gowns not much harm was done.

As was the custom all the men wore boots and paper collars and some wore whiskers. There being no elaborate toilets or complexions to make up, all came early and long before eight o'clock came the call, "Salute your partner," and the dance was on.

At these dances there were no wallflowers; girls were too scarce. They could pick and choose but never turned a man down. Apparently the young lawyer or graduate, the hands from Bartlow's sawmill, the boys from the Baxter Springs cattle trail or from out on the claims all looked good to the,. I have in mind a young lady, now a grandmother, who boasted of having danced with every man in the bunch and several times with many of them.

There generally were tow men wallflowers who never danced -- J. B. Fairbanks and Col. Loomis, both now dead. The former was a highly educated lawyer from Massachusetts, the latter from New York.

A certain handsome young matron, the wife of one of our brightest lawyers, seemed to take delight in weaving a Webb around this oldish bachelor by deposing her few-months-old baby in the lap of the blushing colonel, to hold when she went on the floor to waltz to the strains of the "Beautiful Blue Danube."

Though these dances were held on the extreme frontier and dancing is not supposed to be very elevating, there was never any disorder. Red liquor was to be had, but there was none in evidence. It remained for these days of higher (?) Civilization when some men's idea of a good time is a keg party. To many the supper was the most important part. Most of the men in town or on claim in the country, "kept batch" or did their own cooking--which lacked a good deal of being line mother's--and lived principally on buffalo meat, hog and hominy, with an occasional mess of string dried apples, or later on, like Sid Cure, become sorghum lappers.

When supper was announced all struck for the tavern, the sumptuous dining room of which was fully 10 by 20 feet. The menu was not printed--it wasn't necessary. Everything was in sight on the table. I copy it from an old hotel account book.

While it doesn't look elaborate it is doubtful if the Hotel Baltimore in Kansas City could duplicate it today; oyster soup, roast wild turkey, cold roast buffalo hump, mashed potatoes, boiled hominy, canned corn, hot biscuits, bread, cheese, pickles, pound cake, ginger snaps, sweet crackers, Baltimore canned peaches, tea and coffee.

That the supper was highly enjoyed, it is probably needless to say. A square meal was an oasis in most of the boys' lives those days. The main fillers were turkey and buffalo meat. The former at 50 cents each and the latter at four cents per pound made cheap fillers...Oysters were 75 cents per small can, Peaches, 65 cents the small can, ginger snaps and cheese retailing at 35 and 40 cents the pound.

Hunters kept the market glutted with buffalo meat. Frequently I use to buy and hang up on the north side of the hotel several hind-quarters of buffalo meat, perfectly safe from thieves and microbes. Both of these pests came later as we advanced in civilization.

The bill for the ball was $1.25 per couple which included supper. The only expense for the ball was two fiddlers, one of whom called off.

Among the pioneers there were no very rich nor no very poor. All were on a level and came here to better their condition, to get in on the ground floor and grow up with the country.

(NOTE: Mr. J. P. Short was interviewed for the story that was published in the Winfield Courier December 24, 1925. RKW)