In 1888, immigrants arrived in Dakota Territory at the rate of 1,000 month. Whether seeking a new life, new career or freedom, for most, the life of a pioneer was a hard one. It was difficult creating a farm or ranch from the treeless, trackless prairie, often devoid of neighbors. A wagon load of rough lumber was hauled from the nearest railroad station and a plain, frame shack was built. Tar paper coated the outside walls. Many settlers laid sod walls to add warmth and also to add strength to the flimsy structure to keep if from blowing away in the harsh prairie winds.
Families huddled together in these homes, often consisting of only one or two rooms. Summers were hot and short and winters offered a bleak existence. During the winter, the homesteader and his family were isolated in this shack, with the fires devouring corncobs, dried manure or lignite coal. Each family was compelled to live mainly to itself and visitors were rare. Few social events broke the boredom.
Christmas was one of the most important religious and social occasions of the year. The isolation of the winter prairie was cast aside and an effort was made to visit neighbors and attend religious services. In describing her experience, Christine Stafne remembered her early life near Fort Abercrombie. She wrote, “Eating was so much a part of the social part of Christmas, that weeks had been spent on the preparation of food. The winter’s butchering was done before Christmas and Mother prepared all kinds of meat, both pork and beef, which consisted of sausages, ground meat, spareribs, steaks, roasts, pig’s feet, head cheese, sylte, and rull.” Breads and cakes, family favorites, were baked. Preserves, as well as holiday wines were made from wild chokecherries, plums and grapes.
During the busy days before Christmas, poems and songs were memorized to be recited or sang at the devotional services or at meal time. Gifts were rare, playing a small part in the religious celebration of the season.
On Christmas Day, the settlers gathered in someone’s log cabin for church service. If a minister was unable to reach them, a member of the congregation would direct the Christmas Day worship. They would then bundle themselves in the bob sleigh drawn by oxen and visit the neighbors. Perhaps part of the discussion was that the next Christmas Season would be celebrated as citizens of a state … the newly formed North Dakota.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
History of Dakota Territory by George W. Kingsbury, SJ Clarke Publishing Co. Chicago 1915
“The Development of Agriculture in Territorial Dakota”, The Culver-Stockton Quarterly, Vol VII, #1, January 1931.
Pioneering in the Red River Valley, Christine Stafne, Spokane, WA @ 1944