Grace: Christmas in the early days of Omaha was 'big-time bleak' -
Published Monday, December 23, 2013 at 3:00 am / Updated at 6:20 pm
Grace: Christmas in the early days of Omaha was 'big-time bleak'

They were young, women were few, turkeys for their Christmas meal were fewer and it was too cold to do much.

So how did Omaha's first settlers celebrate the Lord's birth?

According to an account published in the Omaha Sunday Bee, they got drunk and ran up a bar tab that is probably still unpaid. They planted crop seeds in the snow. They ran up Douglas Street hooting and carrying on. They staged a fake legislative session with a made-up committee on marriage. They mourned the terrible male-female ratio as the hunkier among them drew the few available women at dances.

Mostly, they celebrated Christmas the best they could in those first hard years in an Omaha unrecognizable today.

It was the mid-1850s, and Omaha was a hodgepodge of mud streets and wood-frame buildings and log cabins. There was no Old Market. There were no brick streets. There were no trees. Males over age 16 outnumbered their female counterparts by about 2-to-1.

Local historian Harl Dahlstrom said the city, more like a village with 645 people spread from Omaha to Bellevue, looked bleak and at Christmastime was “particularly bleak. Big-time bleak.”

“One of the things that hits you over the head is the starkness of these frame buildings,” he said. “They have a look of impermanence to them. What you see behind them in the background is a raw landscape. It looks very much like a western landscape. The thing that hits you is the almost complete absence of trees.”

Dahlstrom is a history professor emeritus who helped me understand a news story from 1889. The Nebraska State Historical Society unearthed the Dec. 22, 1889, edition of the Omaha Sunday Bee. The society delighted in the retelling of old-timers' memories of early Christmases in Omaha and excerpted the story on its website.

Dahlstrom and a researcher named Max Sparber from the Douglas County Historical Society helped me travel back in time to the 1850s.

William “Billy” Snowden crossed the Missouri River by ferry in July 1854 — the year the United States government made Nebraska a territory, thereby planting a giant welcome mat on the western banks of the Missouri River. Snowden is counted as Omaha's first white settler. His wife, Rachel, joined him.

The Snowdens ran a boarding house for ferry workers called, appropriately enough for this column, the St. Nicholas.

Billy Snowden vividly recounted that first Christmas in Omaha in a story the Bee published 35 years later under the headline “THE POURING OF LIBATIONS.”

A quick aside: Even back in 1889, Christmas wasn't without commercialization. The top third of the page this article was on was dedicated to a giant ad for J.L. Brandeis & Sons, telling people about the “1,000 dozen silk mufflers” and “dress goods” for sale.

“Here are our prices of CLOAKS!” screams a headline.

But the ad reflects an Omaha much different from the city Snowden entered in 1854. By 1889, Omaha had become a full-on big city — bigger than Los Angeles at the time. A conservative population estimate for 1890 put Omaha at 103,000 people. A decade later, Omaha was the fourth-largest city west of the Missouri River (behind San Francisco; Kansas City, Kan.; and Denver).

By then, streets were paved, buildings were brick, industries were launched and the city was no longer a bleak, treeless landscape. People and business had filled in the canvas.

Snowden reminded Bee readers that the Omaha decades earlier was rough.

Back then, he told the Bee, there existed a general store at 12th and Jackson that carried two things: whiskey “of a very poor quality” and garden seed “that never had a fair chance to exert itself.”

“On Christmas in 1854,” he said “the boys got on a spree and drank up all the whisky (sic) and planted the garden seeds in the snow.”

Who were these “boys”?

“I won't tell you,” Snowden told the Bee. “Many of them are here now in high places and never drink anything cheaper than champagne, and they wouldn't care to have their names mentioned in these little festivities in which we used to indulge.”

What was for Christmas dinner? Snowden couldn't remember the menu but knew there wasn't turkey. Turkey was a luxury that came from Iowa and “they came high, too high for us most of the time.”

Another early settler named A.B. Moore shared a colorful Christmas memory with the Bee.

“There weren't many of us,” Moore said. “But we made up what we lacked in numbers by noise, and our energy in getting around.”

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Ah, but there were few women, Moore said, and presumably handsome A.J. Hanscom and John I. Redick “and some of those fellows who were the dudes of those days, got the girls and the rest of us had to stag it.”

Moore's group went through a barrel of eggnog, “a very popular drink in those days, and a very effective one, too,” and when that barrel was done “we didn't pay much attention to the sidewalks, but took the streets.”

Moore described how, in a later year, the territorial Legislature was in session and his buddies staged a pretend one.

“On Christmas, we organized a third house and had a mock session,” he said. “I was a member of the committee on matrimony, and had some fun out of A.J. Poppleton, a member of the legislature, who was keeping company with Old Man Sears' daughter over in Council Bluffs. J. Sterling Morton made us a speech and after that we went out on a painting expedition, as you young fellows now call it.”

This “expedition” didn't get anyone on the wrong side of the law.

“We had no trouble with the police,” Moore said, “as all the state and town officials were in the party.”

A man named John A. Hornbach recalled how he sold $64 worth of whiskey and other liquor to a party of territorial legislators, in Omaha for Christmas in 1855, and still hadn't gotten paid.

“I have the account on my books yet,” Hornbach told the Bee in 1889.

“All of the big guns got loaded with that whiskey,” Hornbach said, “and marched up Douglas Street 40 abreast yelling.”

Herman Kountze, one of the founders of what would become First National Bank, lived with his brother Augustus and a widowed sister “in a little log cabin out on 10th Street.”

Kountze told the Bee that on Christmas Eve 1856, a man from Iowa came into Omaha with a wagonload of turkeys, selling them for $5 apiece.

“They were luxuries in those days,” Kountze said. “We had a turkey dinner for Christmas and thought we were living high.”

James Creighton scoffed at the possibility of turkey at Christmas 1856.

“Turkey?” he told the Bee. “Why turkey that Christmas was taken from the side of a hog!”

Dahlstrom and Sparber told me that Omaha was barely a city then and winters were brutal. The 1855 inaugural ball of Nebraska's third territorial governor, Mark Izard, was a disaster after the heat went out and efforts to insulate the hotel with mud and ice just made the floors so slick no one could dance.

“Just protecting themselves from the elements was a really awful task,” Dahlstrom said. “It was a place hanging on by the margins.”

But hang on Omaha did, perhaps, in those early years, thanks to the young, the bold and a little whiskey.

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Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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