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Christmas Past: Memories of an Unusual House Guest

I recently spent a few hours listening to my grandmother and her siblings recount stories of their childhoods. Seated around a coffee table, they thumbed through small piles of artifacts from their lives. While I listened and watched, I snapped photos of the old family photographs and crumbling newspaper clippings...attempting to preserve the past.

Eventually their voices and laughter became comforting white noise as my mind drifted off and started to imagine their words playing in front of me like an old movie.The scenes floating around and sometimes falling into place on the family history timeline that constantly extends in my brain.

Aunt Ruth presented a small tote that afternoon containing even more treasures. More long forgotten photos, scrapbooks and stories to investigate. I spent some time with these new family treasures this week and compared each item to what “The Box” contains. What immediately stood out was the growing collection of Christmas tales. A few I have heard before, and one new one that caught my attention about a curious visitor that appeared during an 1890’s Minnesota Christmas Eve in a little log cabin on the banks of a place called Silver Lake.

A cabin on Silver Lake

"By the mid-19th century, the first wave of white settlers arrived on the north shore of an unnamed lake, situated on the fertile plains of the Minnesota territory. Primarily English-speaking immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland, many of these settlers were descendants of families who had already lived for generations in America; transplants from the East coast who came to lay claim to the land and to seek their fortunes on the edge of the ‘Big Woods’ of Minnesota. These ‘wheeler-dealers’, who bought low and sold high, would eventually name the settlement and its body of water, “Silver Lake”.

Then the lure of cheap farmland later brought Czech and Polish immigrants; hardworking people who established their own churches, cemeteries, schools, cultural halls, saloons, farms, and the vibrant downtown business community of Silver Lake.

Silver Lake 1880

If you have ever read Little House on the Prairie books, the descriptions of this Christmas setting in a cabin in the wilderness will sound very familiar. I think Laura Ingalls Wilder could have been their neighbor. She actually wrote a book called, By the Shores of Silver Lake, which I don’t remember reading as a kid. I was a huge Little House on the Prairie fan. The Silver Lake in her story is in South Dakota, but the accounts of life for an early Midwestern settler were likely similar state to state.

Now that we've covered some of the historical facts, let’s make like the ghost of Christmas past and take a trip back 128 years to Otter Tail County, Minnesota, to the one room cabin of Leonard Sherman’s grandparents, Winfield and Ella Gould.

Winfield and Ella Gould at Silver Lake

It was Christmas Eve and a blizzard was raging outside, but inside, their little family was busy preparing for Christmas. The children, Leon, Winfield Jr, Maude (Leonard’s mother) and Hallie made popcorn balls, taffy and toasted hazelnuts with their Mother. They hung their fur stockings by the fire, sang hymns and listed to their “Pa” read the Christmas story from the bible.

"The boys, Leon and Winnie, could pull the taffy into long ropes to wind round and round inside a plate, which they set on a pan of snow to harden quickly, so it could be cut up into small, buttery morsels to eat."

After the baking was done, the children were all sent to bed. Like most kids on Christmas Eve they couldn’t sleep due to the anticipation of morning. Their parents stuffed each stocking, blew out the candle and turned in for the night. The two girls, Maude and her younger sister Hallie, stayed wide awake staring at their packed stockings and wondering what was inside.

“They then heard the door softy unlatch. It swung open and a tall Indian walked in wrapped in his blanket. He looked around the room, moved softly on moccasined feet to the fire where he warmed a dried his snowy blanket, then wrapping it about him lay down on the floor to sleep.”

Imagine being a young child and laying terrified in your bed while a stranger decided to take a nap in your living room. The story goes on to describe the chilling howl of wolves outside and the wet splash of snow on the window. Whoever wrote this was a very dramatic storyteller. Maybe that runs in the family? Eventually the whole house fell asleep and awoke the next morning to meet their interesting overnight guest. He was invited to stay and eat Christmas breakfast with them, but remained sitting on the floor, wrapped in his blanket, with his back to the log wall.

The children went about opening their stockings but keeping their distance from the Indian man. The girls found their familiar old rag dolls with newly embroidered faces and clothes. Each child received cloth moccasins, knitted red mittens, popcorn balls and maple sugar doughnuts. The boys found caps and a homemade checker board with black and white buttons for playing pieces. Their mother must have been a very crafty woman, because she also made a Jack in the Box from an old coiled bed spring, fastened inside of a box, with a dried apple head and black yarn hair. I have always hated these things. A terrifying spring loaded contraption that pops out at you when you least expect it. It’s more torture device than toy if you ask me. I imagine this homemade version looked something akin to a shrunken voodoo head.

After the boys had a few turns opening the lid of the box and probably tormenting their little sisters, their mother directed them to share it with the Indian man.

“The Indian took the box and moved the hook that fastened the cover down. Up popped the dried apple head and BANG went the Indian’s head back against the logs. He rubbed the back of his head and shook with silent laughter. Encouraged by his laughter, all the children edged in a little closer. The Indian took the closed box and fastened it, then cautiously unhooked it again. Up popped the apple head and BANG went his head against the logs again. This time he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks and the youngsters all laughed with him.”

The children lost their fear of the strange guest and they all gathered around the table and eat buckwheat cakes and bacon, “swimming” with maple syrup. The story ends, “that was a Christmas they always remembered.” I bet these events were the hot conversation topic in Silver Lake for weeks after.

This story is told from the perspective of another Gould sibling that wasn’t born when these events occurred and it isn’t signed or dated. I’m left to assume it took place in the 1890s based on the history of Silver Lake and the descriptions of the Gould children. I am so curious about where the Indian man came from. Did he have a habit of sleeping in other peoples cabins?

In 1862, before the area was called Silver Lake, the Sioux Indians were fighting back against the new settlers. They destroyed most of the early settlement, crops and livestock. Relations were not good, but the government was eager to see these wild places tamed and encouraged locals to organize, scout, track and kill the Sioux. By 1874 the climate was more stable and permanent homes were built near the shores of the lake. Perhaps the Gould's Christmas guest was an old Sioux man. A remnant of a tribe long disappeared from the area. A straggler that decided to assimilate instead of leave. However it happened, it feels like a speck of good Karma that our ancestors showed him kindness and love on Christmas day.

I hope to share a few more family Christmas stories over the next week. I find them so charming and a great way to get in the true spirit of the holiday season.

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