November 2021-Christmas in South Dakota through the Decades
“Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” – Alexander Smith
The fellowship of being with family and friends on Christmas Day has remained unchanged through the decades, as shown in these three stories about Christmas.
Christmastime might have had a special meaning for Thomas L. Riggs, a missionary to the Lakota.
“It was before Christmas in 1871, while I was still a student in the Seminary in Chicago that I had found the one woman for me and had dared to ask her to share the future with me,” Riggs wrote in the book “Sunset to Sunset.”
That woman was Cornelia “Nina” Foster of Bangor, Maine.
The two were married the day after Christmas in 1872 in Bangor. Riggs had established a mission called Hope Station on the west side of the Missouri River, across from Fort Sully what would become central South Dakota, in 1872. The mission headquarters was later relocated to the eastern side of the Missouri River, about 16 miles north of present-day Pierre, and named Oahe Mission.
In “Sunset to Sunset,” Riggs shared a letter about Christmas 1873 written by Lizzie Bishop, who had come to Hope Station as a teacher and helper.
“The Christmas holidays have passed, but not the pleasant remembrances of their good cheer,” Bishop wrote.
The day after Christmas was the Riggs’ anniversary.
“The good friends at Fort Sully remembered it and planned very quietly, but most generously, to surprise the family at Hope Station … Just after the noonday meal, while the table was still spread, there appeared close by a team containing the Chaplain of the Fort and his family. Close behind, coming up the steep bank of the river, was a four-mule team drawing a heavy army wagon filled with good friends who speedily filled our rooms.”
Those from Fort Sully came bearing gifts of a $35 cash donation and provisions of meat, vegetables, coffee, spices, sugar, rice, lard, dried and canned fruit, cornmeal , a pair of live fowl and fresh eggs.
“The variety of canned articles has sometimes led us almost to forget how many hundred miles we are from any market, especially when eating clam chowder or oyster stew,” Bishop wrote.
A native of Philadelphia, Anna Langhorne Waltz came to Burke as a bride in 1911. Her husband, A. Pierce Waltz, was a Baptist missionary pastor who served churches in Burke and Lucas and ministered to farmers and ranchers in the surrounding area. In 1913, the couple bought a relinquished homestead near the town of White River.
Pierce was called to Deadwood shortly after they acquired the claim. Early in 1914, Anna went to live in a sod house on the claim with their infant daughter. Her account of their first years in South Dakota were published in 1987 issues of “South Dakota History,” a benefit of membership in the South Dakota State Historical Society.
Receiving mail helped ease her loneliness, and one particular letter from her husband brought her great joy.
“He wrote that he had been told that homesteaders were given permission to leave their claims for two or three weeks during the homesteading period. This would not count against them or have to be made up, so he wanted us to come so we could be together for Christmas and the New Year.”
Anna and the baby traveled by train to join her husband in Deadwood.
“At the journey’s end, there was Daddy, waiting to receive us with open arms. We were together again! He had a very nice church in a pretty town of about five thousand people. The whole congregation immediately adopted us into their friendly circle, and I felt as if they were all old friends instead of newly made ones,” Anna wrote.
Snow covered the prairie when Anna and her daughter returned to the homestead in January. She described the scene, “No need of diamonds out here, where the sun could shine on this vast coverlet of snow and make it sparkle like the bright, shining tinsel on a Christmas tree. It was truly beautiful.”
In September 1932, 25-year-old Philip Cummings left his home in Vermont to begin a new job at an exclusive preparatory school southwest of Cody, Wyo. An account of his spending December 1932 in Pierre was published in the Summer 2009 issue of “South Dakota History.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 24, Cummings put in a phone call to his mother in Hardwick, Vermont. “I suppose everyone in the town is talking of my extravagance but many a person would pay double the $6.45 to have a mother to talk to,” he wrote.
That evening he delivered Christmas presents to friends, returned to his host family’s house and opened presents. At eleven he went to the Episcopal Church for the midnight communion service.
“We finally raised a very small glass of very fine wine to the Spirit of Christmas and went to bed at five minutes to three.”
The wife in his host family prepared “a great feast” served at 5 p.m. Christmas Day.
“What a dinner we had,” Cummings wrote. “We launched right into the tremendous turkey with all the gelatinized salads, creamed cauliflower, then mashed potatoes, carrots, hot rolls, the various pickles and jellies then a frozen dessert with coffee, nuts, candy and staffed dates. At the end of the meal there were more things stuffed than the dates. After the dinner, some played cards, then seniorality of the family party left for a short auto drive around town to see the Christmas trees. Later in the evening when everyone had returned, we all sat around the big dining table and played a fine game of cards which lasted us to the midnight hours, when all returned to their various homes. It was a merry MERRY Christmas.
“It was not difficult on retiring to count my blessings, for truly to be with friends and partake of decent fellowship is a large blessing indeed.”
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a story idea