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Yuletide Memories from Early Latah County

This article first appeared in the November/December 2023 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Elaina Pierson, Office Coordinator

Main Street in Troy, Idaho. Winter 1918. LCHS Photo: 15-02-024

For many people, Christmas is a time of celebration and gathering with family and friends, enjoying festive games and gifts and tasty treats. While today the holiday tends to lean more toward extravagance and decadence, the festivities enjoyed by Idaho’s first non-native residents were much simpler, though no less heartfelt or memorable.

A quick search through the Latah County Historical Society’s Oral History Collection yields dozens of holiday tales from these early settlers. The wide range of reminiscences includes everything from the treats found in stockings on Christmas morning to the antics of a surprise bootlegger and gives a special perspective into the lives of our predecessors.

Many of the first white settlers in Latah County and the surrounding area were of direct Norwegian or Swedish descent, and naturally many of the customs from these countries made the long trek with them. Celebrating on Christmas Eve, for instance, is mentioned in several oral histories. Families would work hard to finish the daily chores early so the rest of the day and night could be spent opening gifts, eating special holiday meals, and sometimes joining their communities for a church service or a children’s program at the schoolhouse. Additionally, many Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, candy, and lit candles as many Swedish people still do today.

Christmas decorations in Norwegian Church at Blaine, Idaho. Early 1900s. LCHS Photo: 25-06-016

Willa Cummings Carlson relates in her oral history interview that Scandinavian food was popular in her entire community near Troy, Idaho, saying, “[…] the Swedes were awful good cooks.” Swedish cookies were especially prized, while the Norwegians’ lutefisk recipes were shared widely, although its popularity has fallen drastically since then.

Food in general is of course central to many Christmas activities. Albert Justice’s interview talks about his time as head cook in logging camps near Bovill during the 1930s. Christmas dinner was served at noon and included “just about everything,” he says: roast turkey and fried oysters, cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and a variety of vegetables. There were three kinds of pie and plum pudding, all topped off with a pack of cigarettes behind each plate.

Dining area in logging camp near Bovill. LCHS Photo: 25-03-079

Food was also used as gifts, as Martha Lowery Long of Kendrick relates: “Santy Claus came Christmas Eve and we would hang up our stockings and what was in the stockings, Santy Claus brought. […] every year we got an orange, that's the only orange I ever had was in the toe of my stocking.” Oranges in stockings are a common theme during the time period, but Elsie Nelson’s family took it a step farther. Each Christmas, her grandparents and uncle would come to Moscow bearing two coconuts in the shell.

For many people during this time, life was not easy, and the holidays required extra ingenuity. Homemade gifts and decorations were the norm. Martha Lowery Long and her siblings made shaving pads for their father using the soft pages from mail-order catalogues, with a hand drawn decorative cover attached with yarn. Their mother would receive needle books or pin cushions made from colorful thread and scraps of leftover fabric. Their mother in turn would freshen worn dolls with new hair or a set of new clothes. Two months before Christmas, a big burlap sack would be hung from the stairway in their house and, as gifts were made, they were placed in the sack. The only time anyone was allowed to go near it was when they were adding a new gift, although Martha admits that if no one was watching, a person would give into temptation and carefully feel through the burlap to try to decipher what might be waiting inside.

Jain family. 1910. Grace Jain (Wicks) seated on lap at center. LCHS Photo: Jain.C.03

Grace Jain Wicks, who would become a prominent public figure later in life, grew up on a ranch south of Genesee. Her oral history recounts one especially lean year when the family Christmas tree was made from the branch of a conifer tree – rare in that area at the time – leaned against a wall and hung with balls of orange crepe paper stuffed with rags; she describes it as, “wonderful, wonderful.”

Ella and Dick Benge have a particularly striking account of Christmas during the Great Depression while living near Princeton, Idaho, best told in Ella’s own words:

And one Christmas during the Depression we didn't have any money at all, but we sold two cord of wood at Potlatch and got it hauled down and they measured it up, and we didn't have anything left at all. Just macaroni and flour and, oh, some sugar. And I had to get stockings for the girls, they were going to school, and I just squeezed every penny I could get out of it. And bought a fifty-cent doll for Peggy. And then come Christmas in a couple of days. 'Course, I made 'em doll clothes and things like that, but I didn't know what to have for Christmas dinner, and I didn't have any chocolate; I thought I could make a chocolate cake. And we hadn't had anything except, you know, just plain cake, and so, I went down to the neighbors and asked her if she had any chocolate. She had just gotten a great big box of chocolate, and she give me a cup of cocoa. And I come home — and see there was five of us — and I killed two old hens and stuffed 'em and cooked 'em, and we had potatoes and gravy and a canned vegetable and I made a chocolate pie, and put whipped cream on it for supper. And we just had the loveliest Christmas dinner that you ever saw. Just real nice! With nothing else, and I don't know, I think I had something that I give her in place of the cocoa. And that's the way it went.

Christmas trees were often a special item shared by the community, set up in the town’s church or schoolhouse. These buildings were also generally the only available space large enough to hold public gatherings in many small communities. Glen Gilder of Harvard, Idaho, called the schoolhouse there the center of the neighborhood, “that old schoolhouse was busy day and night.”

Edward Swenson has a fun tale of the schoolhouse Christmas tree in the town of Park, a small trading community southeast of Deary. One year, his father was tasked with finding the tree for the Christmas celebrations, which ended up being “a pretty big tree, it would reach almost to the ceiling of the schoolhouse.” In order to stand the tree, his father moved a desk to one side and drilled a hole through the floor with a two-inch auger. The trunk went through the hole and the top was fastened to the ceiling. When the season was over, the tree was removed and the desk moved back to cover the hole. This same strategy was used for many subsequent Christmases.

Children at Boulder Creek school, second from left in top row: Edward Swenson. June 25, 1897. LCHS Photo: 25-06-023

Travelling to visit loved ones for the holidays is common, and the oral history collection is rife with stories of winter’s fickle weather. Willis Estes, a mail carrier in Viola, tells of using his Model T Ford after acquiring it in 1924, but still keeping a horse and additional packhorse to deliver Christmas packages in inclement weather. In 1933, Axel Anderson, working for the Potlatch Lumber Company north of Bovill, was prevented from leaving the camp for their Christmas break when sudden rainfall and ensuing snowmelt caused the St. Joe River to rise one foot every hour for most of the day. Gustav Carlson described coming home to Troy from California for the holidays around 1935 and encountering snow six feet high; horses were used to break the trail to allow cars through.

As for that bootlegger: Theodore Sundell’s parents emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota, then to the Troy, Idaho area in 1900. As a young man during Prohibition, Theodore describes one Christmas Eve when he and some friends planned to celebrate at a log cabin outside town. The memory is somewhat unclear, but somehow Theodore drew the short straw and was given the responsibility of bringing the whiskey (he notes that, at that time, a gallon of moonshine could be bought for five dollars).

With an empty suitcase, he took a train to Uniontown, Washington, and made the return trip with a full suitcase, arriving back in Troy on the nine o’clock train. As he walked to the planned rendezvous with a waiting friend with horse and cutter sleigh, he was stopped by the city policeman, who beckoned him into an alley. The officer said, “I know what you got in there.” He proceeded to open the suitcase and help himself to a big drink. Theodore was allowed to continue on his way, complete with his now-mostly-full suitcase, but couldn’t find his friend or the horse. There was a program going on at the Lutheran Church, and being a cold night, he went inside, leaving the illicit case in the vestibule. As it happens, his friends were also enjoying the program in the church, so when it was over, as Theodore says, “we rolled to the old cabin and then we celebrated out there that night.”

The Benge family. LCHS Photo: Benge.01

Holiday traditions come in many colors, big gatherings and small, simple and extravagant, but are meaningful in whatever form they take. However you choose to celebrate, we wish you a very merry holiday season, and hope you will join us for the Victorian Christmas at the McConnell Mansion this December 9th from 1 to 4pm.

Over 300 digital recordings and transcripts of interviews in the Latah County Historical Society’s Oral History Collection are available to the public on the University of Idaho Library’s Digital Initiatives website. Find a link to them, and many more local resources, on the LCHS website.

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