Tom Ross: Yuletide in a 1-room log cabin
December 20, 2011
Steamboat Springs — When Steamboat Springs' first European settlers gathered to celebrate the Yuletide for the first time here, most of the gifts were handmade. But thanks to a very determined letter carrier, there also were some books under the tree.
If you are of my generation, you may recall childhood Christmases when you made your own ornaments for the tree. Or perhaps you made some of the gifts for your siblings. It's a tradition that's carried on to this day in my extended family.
Those traditions pale in comparison to the homespun Christmas enjoyed 134 years ago by the James and Margaret Crawford family in their one-room log cabin in what would become Steamboat Springs.
The late Mary Crawford King left us a written record of Christmas Day 1877, when the Crawford family joined with Mr. and Mrs. S.D.N. Bennett to celebrate the holiday.
There was a small tree hung with ropes of popcorn and some paper cornucopias that Mrs. Bennett had made, decorating them with pictures and narrow pink ribbons, Crawford King reported. The cornucopias were filled with Mrs. Crawford's homemade candies and raisins. In those days, raisins always were among the winter supplies.
I am relying on some lightly tattered newspaper clippings for this account, which I presume originally ran in the Steamboat Pilot, possibly as early as the 1920s. They were likely reprinted in the mid-1960s. The date given of the first Christmas in 1877 seems to conflict with the Crawford family history that has James and Margaret moving here permanently in 1876.
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Crawford King described the pretty apron, trimmed with tatting, that Mrs. Bennett made for Mrs. Crawford, and the double-knitted mittens that Mrs. Crawford made for her husband and sons, Logan and John.
A brave postman made the rest of the gifts possible, according to the newspaper account.
"Mail was then received only about once a month and this was brought in by snowshoe from Hahn's Peak a few days before Christmas."
The postman brought with him books shipped from the Crawford's home state of Missouri and enough popcorn to string on the tree. The Bennets came early to the Crawford cabin, which was lined "with newspapers arranged so as to show the pictures on them to good advantage."
The guests stayed for dinner, which included "trout, fine venison roast, mince pie and cottage cheese. Lil, the first cow to be kept over winter in Steamboat Springs, supplied fine cream."
James Crawford established a claim here in 1874 and made four visits in 1875, but he did not bring his family here permanently until 1876. As fate would have it, the Crawford family did not celebrate another Christmas in the Yampa Valley until 1880, according to the newspaper account. That was because James Crawford served in the state Legislature in the interim, and in part because of the "Indian troubles" of 1879.
The mail delivery man, Ed Coburn, figured prominently again in Christmas 1880 at the Crawford cabin. He came from Hayden that year to dine with Steamboat's first settlers. After the meal, Coburn set off for a cabin on Morrison Creek where he typically would exchange mail bound in different directions with a carrier from Hot Sulphur Springs.
A dense snow storm set in and Coburn lost his way, struggling to find the cabin. He used his last match to start a fire and cooked a porcupine he had killed along the way, an event that may have saved his life. He ultimately found the cabin and soon was rescued by a party of men that ferried him back to the Crawford cabin on a sled. Coburn suffered from severe frostbite and remained with the Crawfords until spring.
When you sit down to dinner with family and friends Sunday, take a moment to ponder Routt County's first Christmas.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com