First Christmas Tree
Thursday, December 15, 2011
With the Christmas holiday soon approaching, many North Dakotans will soon embark on that annual pilgrimage to select the perfect Christmas tree. The first Christmas tree in North Dakota, however, was not nearly so easy to secure.
Although several military posts and agencies across the state had erected some form of holiday tree before 1873, the first official tree in an incorporated settlement arrived in Fargo in mid-December of that year. At that time, Fargo residents had to cross the river to Moorhead to attend church services each week. In previous years, a community tree was set up in the churches on the Minnesota side of the river, but in 1873, Fargo residents asked that the tree be placed on their side of the river. Moorhead members refused to capitulate, believing that the tree, having religious significance, belonged with the churches, on their side of the river.
Bitter over losing the argument, Fargo residents returned home in ill spirits. Community members met that evening to discuss the matter, and J. R. Chapin suggested that the city have their own tree. He even volunteered ten dollars toward the cost of securing one. The telegraph operator, John Jennings, was immediately sent to issue a message to Brainerd, Minnesota, asking that two of the area’s finest trees be loaded into a boxcar and shipped to Fargo. Residents ordered two trees in case one was lost en route. In the spirit of Christmas, the railroad officials at Brainerd loaded and shipped the trees free of charge, but soon after their arrival at the Headquarters Hotel in Fargo, both trees were stolen. A committee was formed to search for the trees, but they could not be found. Finally, some angry Fargo residents, believing that Moorhead had taken the trees, hung effigies of several Moorhead troublemakers from the railroad bridge. A phony funeral service was held for the effigies, including a procession, a sermon, and the singing of hymns. The following night, the trees were returned to Fargo, to the delight of the city’s children.
The trees were decorated with silver half-dollars and lit with candles. The people of Fargo gathered around, and Chapin, playing Santa Claus, arrived with gifts for the children. So it was that North Dakota had not one, but two first Christmas trees.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job