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Out of the Morgue
Christmas in Great Bend, 1886
otm deh brit spaugh zoo train pic
This photo of the restored locomotive at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh park was taken a few years ago, and continues to be a timeless reminder of Great Bends railroad town history. - photo by Dale Hogg, Tribune Staff

Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.

In 1986, “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for children’s literature. Since then, reading the story has become a family holiday tradition for many, and the movie released in 2004 prompted several private rail tourism companies around the country to produce the Polar Express experience. There’s something about trains and Christmas. The two just go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Here in Great Bend, the Barton County Historical Society Museum has for years featured the train set of Rich Fox. It was reported in the Great Bend Tribune Dec. 8 how the Golden Belt Model Railroad Association will have the set running in his memory this year. The club purchased the set from the Fox family in order to carry on the tradition for years to come. Also at the museum is the child-sized train that from time to time provides rides for youngsters around the outdoor features in the southwest grounds of the village.
Trains and Great Bend, too, just seem to go together. Perhaps that’s because the formation of all we hold dear here was really made possible because of railroad expansion at the end of the 1800s and through the middle of the last century. In fact, during this Christmas season in 1886, Great Bend, Hoisington, and several other nearby communities were vying to host railroads like the Santa Fe, the Missouri Pacific, and the Kansas and Pacific, to name a few.

Make way for trains
The restored locomotive engine at the entrance to Brit Spaugh Park looks an awful lot like it could pass for the Polar Express. It was reported this week in the Great Bend Register, Dec. 22, 1886 that progress was being made on the tracks that would carry it back and forth between Hoisington and Great Bend.

“The contractors on the Hoisington extension of the Missouri Pacific expect to have the grading about done to Great Bend by January 1. The ties are being placed on the bed rabidly and the iron will closely follow.”

It was largely due to the railroad that Hoisington grew into the town it was to become. In 1886, it was just getting its start.

“The new town of Hoisington is looming up. Two livery stables are about completed, several store buildings in course of construction and a number of dwelling houses under way. The northsiders expect to see, by early spring, quite a town there.”

Later that week, it was reported, “The material for the street railway is ordered and work will commence as soon a it can reach here. The track will be of 25 lb. T-steel rails and the cars of the latest pattern, so say those who know.”

There was no question that the advancement of the railroads were a good thing to the people of western Kansas. It meant more money for farmers, and that meant more money for everyone else. To confirm this, a snippet from the McPherson Freeman.

“The presence of the Missouri Pacific at this place has advanced the price of wheat to the farmers ten cents per bushel, and corn four to five cents per bushel. These advanced prices are now being paid, and they wouldn’t be paid if the Missouri pacific was not running here.”

The Salina Herald noted that the MP was definitely in a growth position.

“The Missouri Pacific have contracts for 100 new locomotives, 150 passenger cars, and 4,000 freight cars, to be furnished immediately.”

It had to ruffle the feathers of those in Great Bend who put their stock in the Santa Fe.

“The Santa Fe is having twelve locomotives built for passenger travel exclusively. They are said to be large and handsome, with a capacity to pull 13 coaches 60 miles an hour. This will be a great improvement on the present movement which is not considered at all rapid.”

Eventually, cars and trucks ended the reign of locomotives, and today the trains in these parts are used exclusively for hauling commodities. Still, one has to wonder how many families have bundled up the kids in jammies and went for a drive to see the Trail of Lights and stopped to take a photo by the old locomotive engine. What better way to take an imaginary trip to the North Pole before tumbling into bed Christmas Eve?

Santa sightings
Reports of church and school Christmas parties filled the newspapers the next week.

“There was a Christmas tree at the Langford schoolhouse, district No. 77, on Christmas eve. A most enjoyable time was had by all. The house was filled to overflowing. One of the finest trees we ever saw met our view. It was filled from top to bottom with costly presents. The program began with a speech by A.H. Clancy. Then song entitled Christmas Tide, after which an able prayer was rendered by the Sabbath School superintendent. Program then lasted for an hour or two made up of songs and declamations, after which the watch began for Santa Claus. He made his appearance in through the window loaded down with nuts, candies, etc., which he distributed among the little folks and made things lively for awhile with his antics and funny speeches, then he made a distribution of the presents. He finished his evening’s exercises by making a short address to the audience and thanking them for their good behavior and promising them another tree next year. Being dismissed each went to their home feeling that it was a Christmas long to be remembered. - A.L.L.

Another person, A.H.C., also declared the Christmas tree at No. 77 a success.

“The Christmas tree at No. 77 was a thing of beauty and it groaned under its load of presents for the little folks, and some of the older ones were made happy also. Santa Claus was present as he always is on an occasion of this kind, and with him came a shower of peanuts. The music, both vocal and instrumental, was good. On Christmas, quite a company of friends and neighbors to the number of 65 took our much esteemed friend George Morris and wife by surprise and also took possession of the premises and forth with informed them that it was the 15th anniversary of their wedding day. The dinner was grand, the presents were numerous and useful. Brother Morris said that he was glad that his lot had been cast among this people. After a handshake all around and wishing them prosperity and long life, the company dispersed to their homes feeling it was a day long to be remembered.”

Santa made his rounds to more than the No. 77 that evening.

“The Children of the Presbyterian Sunday school met with their parents and friends at the church on Christmas eve and enjoyed themselves as only children can. Some parts of the evening’s entertainment will not soon be forgotten. Of course there was the usual Santa Claus, with his loads of oranges, nuts, candies, apples, etc., but when these are all forgotten, memory will still cling to the tender pathos of how “Little Kate Knocked at the Gate of Heaven,” so touchingly rendered by Frank Heizer, and ever recall the cuteness of little Lulu McCord and her next building took the house by storm. Then too, the beautiful rendition of the little ones, gave a new lease of life to the dear old hymn, “I think when I read that sweet story of old.” Other occurrences of the evening, though not perhaps of general interest, were none the less full of enjoyment to the participants. Among such we might mention the presentation to Mrs. Turner of a beautiful book by her class of boys. There was no attempt at display, yet the manifest enjoyment of the children spoke only of success.”

It is our sincere hope at The Great Bend Tribune that this trip down memory lane to the Christmas eves of yesteryear help to build in you the spirit of Christmas and that your 2016 gatherings with family and friends and community are bright and cheerful and “not soon forgotten.”