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Stolen Christmas Tree

On June 6, 1872, Reverend Oscar Elmer noted in his diary that the first Northern Pacific locomotive had crossed into Dakota Territory by way of the bridge between Moorhead and Fargo. He underlined the passage, indicating he knew the symbolic importance of the crossing.

The progress of his own mission, however—promoting Christianity and respectability in the developing territory—was halting. A few days after the first train, the preacher agreed to marry Michael Gleason and Elizabeth Hohenbery, no fee to be charged. Hohenbery was a reforming prostitute, and the witness was “one of her female associates.” Two days later, however, “Pimp Brownie of Brainerd” came to town, beat up Mrs. Gleason, and took her away.

The tendency of missionaries to be bigoted toward those not of their faith surfaced in the case of the local baker, John Gamble, who desired to marry a Metis girl—termed a “breed,” or halfbreed, by Reverend Elmer. He managed to convince Gamble of the unsuitability of a match with a mixed-blood Catholic.

Rev. Elmer himself had a sweetheart in Minneapolis, whom he visited in April 1873, and they had a pleasant time riding together, but it ended badly; they agreed not to correspond for the next year. Apparently the young lady was not interested in joining her beau in the wilds of Dakota. Rev. Elmer, nevertheless, located a homestead claim and hired some acres broken. One day, returning from work on the claim, he took satisfaction in a foot bath and, he recounted, had “a good time writing sermons.”

It would have been easy to be discouraged. Liquor was the biggest problem in the settlement. “My blood gets up over the liquor question,” the preacher confessed. “See a drunken man pitched out of a saloon into the mud and also hear that a drunken half-breed had been carted down to the timber and tumbled out to lie exposed in the rain. Go to the Orleans Club, to Hansons & to Hennebokles”—all the notorious saloons—“and ventilate my feelings and warn them of the notice to all whiskey sellers to file bonds.”

Still, there were rude joys and makeshift camaraderies to be treasured. On December 22, 1873, Rev. Elmer announced in his diary, “Someone has stolen the Christmas tree.” Settlers commenced making out bogus writs for the arrest of one another, until Jeremiah Chapin penned an equally bogus death-bed confession implicating himself along with four comrades in the theft. He confessed that they did “maliciously and willfully steal and purloin from the depot at Moorhead 3 tamarac[k] trees . . . said trees being intended for a Christmas festival to be held at Moorhead.”

The following morning five straw effigies appeared hanging from the railroad bridge. While Rev. Elmer went around collecting foodstuffs for the celebration and arranging the tree, which had been recovered, others ran an engine under the effigies and took them down gently. By Christmas one had been laid out in a mock-coffin, lined with muslin, in the depot. Wags put a wreath on it; marked it with the legend, “Body of J.B. Chapin, Salt Lake City Care of Brigham Young via Kittson Line,” and shipped it to St. Paul.

Rev. Elmer was in on the whole thing. However much he might exhort and rail against drinking and sin, he had become one of the boys in this territorial town. He had cast his lot with the developing frontier, the country was better for it, and so was he.

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