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Cozy Christmases in the McConnell Mansion?

This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Hayley Noble, Executive Director

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It’s that time of year once again where we begin to make holiday plans. Whether its staying at home or traveling, many are already stressing about the hectic holidays to follow Halloween. My suggestion is that we all take a page out of Dr. Frederic Church’s book, literally.

Frederic Church in the McConnell Mansion. LCHS Photo: Church.F.04.

Dr. Frederic Church was the McConnell Mansion’s last private owner. He was a roomer at the Mansion under ownership of the Adair and Jackson families. Church moved in when he was hired as a European history professor at the University of Idaho in 1921. Accounts of how he acquired accommodations differ slightly, depending on whom you ask. According to Ione and Bernadine Adair, living at the Mansion in 1921, Church walked by the house, admiring the garden. Losina Adair, Ione and Bernadine’s mother, was out tending the yard when she struck up a conversation with him; by the end of the discussion, Church paid her $20 rent for a room. The other story is that as Church arrived by train into Moscow, the University President’s wife met him at the station. He had arranged to stay at a cheap motel but was instead taken to the McConnell Mansion as it was a more suitable accommodation for a faculty member. He lived as a roomer from 1921 until he decided to purchase the home from the Jacksons in 1940. He was the last private owner of the home. Upon his death in 1966, he gifted the Mansion to the county for use as a museum.

Dr. Church’s Christmas Day 1935 diary entry. Frederic Church Papers, 1910-1966 Box 2. MG 83. University of Idaho Library, Special Collections and Archives.

As the holidays approach, I often wonder how Dr. Church spent his holidays in the McConnell Mansion. He kept a diary, noting his activities, his opinions on movies, the weather, and his correspondence. His diaries detail holidays spent among friends and sometimes in solitude. Christmas day 1935 included a party at Marjorie Adair Lyon’s house with guests Ione and Lula Adair. Most of his Thanksgiving and Christmas plans involved dinner at a friend’s house or a party. One humorous Christmas Day 1940 was spent drinking Tom and Jerry cocktails and smoking a cigar on an empty stomach which “spoiled him for Christmas dinner.” He often baked pies to bring to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners and enjoyed the pleasant company of his friends. He also wrote and sent cards to many, many people. Before attending the dinners, Church noted his mornings spent catching up on writing letters or reading the newspaper, with the lists of cards sent kept in the diaries. A few of his Christmas cards in the Latah County Historical Society’s collection include poems written by Church, with sometimes cryptic messages.

Another constant protagonist in Church’s diaries was the cold of the McConnell Mansion. Whether sitting in front of the fireplace or next to one of the radiators, he was constantly trying to find warmth in the house. Most often her also had a book in hand or was napping on the couch. He was an avid reader, frequently consuming books at a rapid pace, often noting the rain or snow outside. I can just imagine a pie baking, with Church reading a book by the fireplace as it snows outside – any booklover’s cozy dream. Even after coming home from dinners and parties, he would take time to read whatever novel he was in the middle of, and jot down his progress in diary entries.

Very few times did the McConnell Mansion and Frederic Church host holiday meals, but when they did, it sounded like a peaceful occasion. Thanksgiving 1944, Church hosted “his boys” - former students he stayed in touch with. He invited Richard Wilson, Paul Reimers, Charles Nesbit, Roy Whitacre, and Don Irish for the Thanksgiving holiday. They gathered by the fireplace, talking, before singing around the piano. Church even documented the occasion with photos, which we are fortunate to have. Five years later for Thanksgiving 1949, Church detailed that this was his first Thanksgiving spent at home in several years, writing, “It’s wonderfully quiet – no radio, no children in the street.” He even made himself waffles. Then on Christmas Day 1960 he noticed “Real Sunday quiet to begin this Christmas morning. No sunshine, but a feeling of peace.” His afternoons of naps, reading, writing letters, and enjoying the company of friends, escaping the wet weather, sound like heaven to me.

And yet, many of his statements in his diary denote melancholy tones. Christmas Eve 1939 had the first snowfall of the year, but he writes, “Christmas holidays are apparently always shaded by unfinished business.” I’m unsure to what he is referring, but other similar sentiments can be found. He also wrote on Christmas Day 1943, “I made tea and ate some cake with it; and at 9 o’clock I went to bed, there to read for an hour, still under the spell of the depression which I suppose I always have at Christmas.”

Christmas away from family can be difficult. Even now with facetiming, texting, calling, etc.; it can still be lonely to be without your siblings and parents as a single person. I cannot fathom the loneliness Church might have felt away from his sister in Pennsylvania. It is very evident from his diaries that he had many friends and people who cared about him, but when you return to an empty, cold house at the end of a long day, it can be disheartening, and I wonder if this is the depression he wrote about.

While I did not find the many holiday gatherings I expected from this beautiful house hidden away in Dr. Church’s diaries, I did find a kindred spirit in him for our love of books, long discussions among friends, and a love of baking and napping. All this is to say, that the holidays documented at the McConnell Mansion were few under the ownership of Dr. Church. He preferred to spend those occasions in the company of his adopted families, returning to the house for peaceful evenings reading by the fire. But as a museum, the McConnell Mansion has a long tradition of being decorated and open for the Christmas holidays. From LCHS parties to the Victorian Christmas open houses, the splendor of the Mansion is on full display. Of course, I would expect nothing less, knowing that the actual Victorians under the reign of Queen Victoria originated many of our treasured holiday traditions. Decorating a Christmas tree, sending festive cards, and gathering to play games and feast on large dinners are all thanks to the influence of Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. As more and more Europeans emigrated to America, their holiday traditions were transported across the Atlantic. Another cultural influence was that of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. The Christmas allegory captured and helped transform Christmas into our modern understanding of the holiday. It is remarkable that the tale is still told, in many forms. Last December, I even attended a University of Idaho theatre adaptation of the novel, illustrating its continued relevance.

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So mark your calendars as the Latah County Historical Society prepares to once more host the free Victorian Christmas open house on December 17th from 1-4pm at the McConnell Mansion. Come enjoy delightful company, cookies, and the radiance that only the Victorians knew how to capture in Christmas decorations. I also want to take this opportunity to announce that LCHS has launched a fundraising campaign to restore the wood around the windows in the Mansion. Weather and animal damage have taken a toll on the house, and we are now raising funds to restore this community treasure to its former glory. Unfortunately, the Christmas decorations can only hide so much. So please help us celebrate this Moscow jewel with the Victorian Christmas tradition and many more events to come.

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