In 1874, Kansas was plagued with locusts (grasshoppers), which descended on the area and ate all the crops and any other living plant material in the area.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, “the invasion began in late July when without warning millions of grasshoppers, or Rocky Mountain locusts, descended on the prairies from the Dakotas to Texas. The insects arrived in swarms so large they blocked out the sun and sounded like a rainstorm. They at crops out of the ground, as well as the wool from live sheep and clothing off people’s backs. Paper, tree bark, and even wooden tool handles were devoured. Hoppers were reported to have been several inches deep on the ground and locomotives could not get traction because the insects made the rails too slippery.”
This was particularly tragic for the immigrants living in western Kansas who had invested all they had to come west and attempt to establish themselves here. They desperately needed the food and the money from the crops they hoped to harvest in order to make a go of it. Alas, many were left with nothing, starving and without resources. In fact, pleas were sent back east and collections were taken up.
An old Civil War nurse, Mary Ann (Ball) Bickerdyke, moved to Kansas in 1867. She settled in Salina to run a hotel in 1867. She is credited with influencing 200 Union soldiers and their families to settle in the state, according to the KHS. She was affectionately known as “Mother” by these settlers. She called upon contacts made during her years of service during the Civil War to appeal for help for help with great success.”
Perhaps her actions inspired others here in Barton County to do what they could to spread cheer that Christmas. It was in 1874 that the first public Christmas tree was erected in the county. On Dec. 24, 1937, the following story by historian Fred. W. Warren was printed in The Great Bend Tribune. Warren was considered an “old-timer,” and might also be considered Barton County’s first Santa Claus.
“On the night of December 24, 1874, Ellinwood had the first Christmas tree in Barton County. It occurred somewhat after this manner:
Our town, being so fortunate as to have five or ten of the most wide-awake, go-ahead ladies to be found in Kansas, thoroughly alive to every interest of the town and country, determined to make one happy time for the children during these grasshopper times. Accordingly a committee consisting of Mrs. Hollinger, Mrs. Landis and Mrs. Bay, went to work in good earnest thus showing their motherly aptitude in providing for the little ones of the community, made all necessary arrangements, and in due time had a very respectable evergreen in position, in the school house, profusely decorated and literally loaded down with beautiful cornucopias and large, neatly ornamented and embroidered stockings well filled with candies, nuts and goodies of all kind. These, and the materials of which the cornucopias and stockings were composed, were bountifully furnished by Messrs. Landis & Williamson, but very little help having been given by other parties. The expense of the tree was defrayed by Mr. Geo. W. Hollinger. Indeed the profuseness and generosity with which the tree was furnished is very creditable to the liberality of our citizens.
Reaching Ellinwood’s handsome school house at an early hour we were astonished to find the house literally jammed from parquet to dome — not even a seat in the gallery could be obtained for love or money. We have attended many a similar gathering — have often seen the lamps shine “o’er fair women and brave men,” but never such a crowd as this. Not our least surprise as the large number of handsome young and married ladies (the committee by no means excepted) who adorn this vicinity.
The exercises of the evening were conducted by Mr. Chalfant with a masterly hand; and considering that the programme which had been previously arranged was “noncomeatable” on account of the failure or lack of promptness on the part of those who had parts assigned them, the impromptu programme was carried through very creditably and successfully.
A melodeon was on hand, furnished by Miss Etta Avery, and played by J.H. Bross, who conducted the musical exercises of the evening.
The exercises were opened with music — “Let the Master In” — by the choir, consisting of Messers. Chalfant, W.W. Shannon, Geo. Barngrover, J.H. Bross, A.R. Huffman of Nickerson; Mrs. Royal Harkness, Mrs. John Shimmins and Mrs. W.W. Shannon.
Opening prayer and address, “Our Sunday Schools,” was given by Mr. Shimmins.
A solo and duet, “The Old Mountain Pine,” was presented by Messrs. Huffman and Bross.
Followed by a very amusing description of Santa Claus by Mr. B.B. Smyt, teacher of the school, during which the tinkling bells and swift hoofs of reindeer were heard and suddenly in rushed Santa Claus, in the person of Mr. F.W. Warren, covered with fur and frost from head to foot, and loaded down with presents; and was introduced to the audience by Mrs. W. C. Bay, amid much commotion and merriment.
While Santa Claus was behind the curtain placing the presents on the tree a piece of music — “Meet Me Darling Josie at the Gate” — was sung by Bross and Huffman by special request.
Here a short and pithy address was made by Mr. A. McKinney on Christmas customs.
Then came the unveiling of the Christmas tree by Mrs. Bay, who made a very neat and appropriate speech showing the enterprise of Ellinwood in getting up a Christmas tree in such hard grasshopper times.
Here Rev. Mr. Reed was introduced, who made an address to the children on “Our First Christmas Present.” In the meantime, the lights were rapidly burning on the tree and the children were anxiously waiting.
The distribution of presents by the committee, assisted by the little Misses Lottie Twoers and Katie Halsey, as pages and assisted also by Messrs. Chalfant, Warren and McKinney. Old Santa remembered every one of the 150 children present by giving each one something to remember him by. Among the amusing incidents of the distribution were the reception by Misses Carrie Bacon and Ida Forsyth, of immense dolls, dressed in the height of fashion.
Mr. Bross’ loneliness was remembered, and he was presented with a very neat and pretty young lady in the shape of a doll. A young gentleman from Cow Creek was presented with a penny American flag with which to celebrate the centennial. Sim Avery was presented with a broom, not to show, like a schooner, that he was the fastest young man in town, but to assist him in his prospective housekeeping.
Mr. Halsey received a candy marble, and several other important personages received a stick of candy each.
The exercises closed with music — “Waiting On,” — by the choir; and “Larboard Watch Ahoy,” by Messrs. Bross and Huffman.
The evening’s entertainment closed harmoniously and everybody went home to enjoy a Merry Christmas.
So, considering the grasshoppers had consumed everything in site, how did the “committee” manage to arrange for an evergreen tree? Likely it was ordered from an eastern state and arrived on the train.
Interestingly, according to the Association for Consumer Research, in 1874, America had not yet undergone a complete cultural transition to giving multiple store-bought gifts on Christmas. Small tokens were more common in 1874. Immigrants still observed the traditions of their home countries. It wasn’t until 1880 that advertising for Christmas gifts picked up, and a gradual shift from handmade to store-bought gifts was made.