Christmases past were celebrated in a somewhat different way than today.
It appears that "spreeing" was a common denominator in the tales told by the early settlers of the county. For "spreeing," insert the word "whiskey."
This time next year, a new book, “Christmas Anthology of Illinois,” by James Ballowe of Ottawa will be in the bookstores. Included in this work are stories from around the state, Fayette County included, of how the holiday was celebrated in years past.
James contacted me in early January 2009 with a request for stories from the annals of our county history that would demonstrate the manner in which our inhabitants celebrated Christmas.
The name of the Rev. Presley Garner Donaldson immediately came to mind. Donaldson, a Universalist minister, was born and reared in Hurricane Township, and in 1908 published a memoir that included a story titled “A Christmas Spree.” This “spree” would have taken place about 1859.
“George Lovegrove, Charlie Watkins, Ed Dickerson, Jerome Daniels, Franklin Freeman and many others were my chums at this time, and we had some great times. I want to tell you about a Christmas spree we had.
“Franklin Freeman, Ed Dickerson and Charlie Watkins left Ramsey well supplied with whisky, and started for Charlie Watkins’ to eat a Christmas supper where they had a turkey gobbler cooked.
“But before we got to the supper, something happened on the road that I must tell. Old man Cline overtook us, just at the top of Ramsey Hill. He was riding a little black mule. We acted neighborly with Mr. Cline, and gave him a dram. The first thing we knew, Charlie Watkins, Franklin Freeman and myself were up behind Mr. Cline on the poor little mule.
“Reader, think of four good-sized men on one little mule. Ed Dickerson was not idle all this time. He was loading his gun. The little mule was trudging along just about the middle of the hill; about this time Dickerson shot off the gun.
“The poor mule tried to jump, but fell down and men, mule and all went rolling down the hill. Dickerson had more fun than all the rest. I wish I had a picture of all hands when the mule fell.
“Friends, I leave it to your imagination, and I am not afraid of you overdrawing the picture. Mr. Cline started home and, no doubt, was feeling pretty good because he had escaped.
“We went on to the supper and found that they had the turkey cooked and the table nicely set. The women had started in to have a nice time and everything was nice until we men arrived on the scene of action. We grabbed that gobbler, tore him in four pieces bare handed and made a perfect mess of everything. We ate the supper, kissed the girls and women – and what do you think we did next? We went back to Ramsey to lay on a little more kindling wood. We then scattered out, went home about 10 o’clock that night and dreamed of sky blue lizzards and red hot reptiles.”
William Lane Carson, for whom Carson Township is named, recounted a story for the July 2, 1908, issue of The Vandalia Union, told to him by Henry Luster. Henry Luster was born in 1778, and his brother, Phil, also mentioned in the tale, was born in 1801.
Carson wrote, “I will close this article with a story related to me in the early 1840s by an old pioneer, Henry Luster.
“Wild turkeys were very numerous, and in the fall the gobblers would gang together. Old Henry and his brother, Phil, learned where a gang of 40 roosted.
“They went in the night and under the tree scattered three pecks of shelled corn. In the morning, the turkeys would get down and eat the corn. They did this for some time, as corn was only a picayune, or six and a half cents, a bushel.
“The week before Christmas, they got three gallons of whiskey and put the corn to soak until all the whiskey was absorbed. They then put it under the tree, as usual.
“The next morning, they secreted themselves and awaited the results. After the corn was about all consumed, one big fellow commenced to strut and gobble and promenade around the stick. He was soon joined by others, and at last they all got to gobbling and strutting and mixed up like an old Virginia Reel.
“Soon a fight got up, and the feathers and leaves flew – the like he had never seen. They ran up, clubs in hand, and began to murder the drunken gobblers. At last, they had them all killed but one, and he came at them with all the vengeance of an angry devil. After quite a fight, they got him, too.
“After resting a while, they brought their Dearborn wagon, loaded them, took them to town and sold them – getting groceries enough to last them over the holidays.”
The third and final account, also from the 1820s, comes from Bond County. Contributed by R.O. Smith for Perrin’s 1882 Bond County History, Smith also told that shooting matches were another Christmas-time event.
Writes Mr. Smith, “A story is told of a party of fellows on a Christmas spree, who, finding themselves about out of whiskey and not having the wherewith to replenish, hit upon the following expedient to obtain a supply.
“They went out one night to a little grocery, having one raccoon skin with them. They paid for whiskey enough to furnish them all a drink or two round, including the proprietor, who of course, was fond of the article and imbibed rather freely, soon becoming quite hilarious from its effects.
“The party observed this, and each one on placing the liquor to his lips, merely tasted it. But the grocery-keeper, whenever it came his turn, took a good drink. Consequently, objects soon began to assume a confused appearance to his vision.
“This was just what they wanted, and getting him ‘about right,’ as they expressed it, one of them slipped back where the pile of skins lay, took one and put it through a large crack in the wall of the hut, to the outside; then going out of the door he went round, took up the skin, and after waiting a few minutes, came in – being saluted by the others as a fresh arrival – and presented his raccoon skin in payment of a certain amount of whiskey.
“This offer was readily accepted, the whiskey measured out and the skin thrown back on the heap with the rest. This feat was repeated every few minutes until they obtained the whiskey they wanted, having actually sold the grocery-keeper his own raccoon skin six or seven times in a few hours.”
As we look forward to Christmas 2010 and publication of James Ballowe’s new book on an untouched subject of Illinois history, Fayette County can be proud of the fact that stories from our old-timers are included.