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Christmas in Dayton 50 Years Ago

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 24, 1933


By Howard Burba

Dayton citizens of 50 years ago enjoyed a “white Christmas.”

            Snow covered the Miami valley to a depth of two feet for three days before the arrival of Santa Claus, and on Christmas Eve a warm and beaming sun came very near making it necessary for the old gentleman to swap his sleigh for a rowboat.  In fact, Daytonians spent their Christmas Eve 50 years ago battling a near-flood.

            There had been numerous snows previous to the arrival of the yuletide season, but no severe col dweather accompanied it.  Amateur weather prognosticators felt warranted in predicting that the remainder of the winter would be an open one.  Quite naturally, we find the populace interested in these predictions, sufficiently so to warrant a local newspaper in commenting on them at length in its issue of Dec. 24, 1888 - just 50 years ago.  Here is the weather news that must have been read with mingled sentiments of joy and thanksgiving.

            “ ‘Muskrats ain’t troubling themselves much about a hard winter,’ said an old-time Dayton hunter yesterday.  ‘You don’t fool them much on the weather,’ he continued.  ‘They’re better than any almanac.  I’ve watched them for a good many years in the Miami Valley bottoms and I can always tell along in the fall whether we are going to have an open winter or not.  If it’s going to be a hard winter you’ll see the muskrats commence housebuilding early in the fall, the marshes built up of mud and sticks and leaves three or four feet above the water.  But if they weather is going to be mild, you see nothing of that kind.’

            “A colored man who has lived most of his life in the river bottoms near Miller’s Ford, added his testimony as to the signs of the season:

            “ ‘I tell you boss,’ he said, ‘de old groundhog am de animal to go by.  He knows more about de weather than all de rest of de beasts.  If he can see his shadow when he comes outen his hold in February he gits back in de ground quick and’ stays dere fer six weeks longer.  Den you can bet there’ll be a late spring.  He’s jest as smart about the winter, fer if it’s gwine to be warm he jist scratches a shallow hold to hide in: dat’s all he wants.  But if it gwine to freeze hard he’ll go in deep and make his-self a warm nest of dry grass an’ leaves.  De groun’ hog ain’t got no use for a big wood pile dis winter, boss, an’ you won’t have, neither.’

            “We talked to a well known poultry dealer in the city market house.  He informed us that the inner coating of a chicken gizzard peeled off very easily , a never-failing aign, he says of an open winter.  Another point was gained when a farmer from out on the Centerville pike said corn husks are remarkably thin this season, more evidence of a promise of thin ice.

            “‘Mallard ducks had very few feathers last fall,; said the poultry man, and a lot of wild fowl has not yet gone south.  So it can’t be a very severe winter.’

            “If further evidence is needed to convince the skeptical that there is no need in squandering a fortune on coal we can find it for them.  The fish dealers say catfish being sold on the Dayton market are very thin-skinned just now.  If it was to be a cold winter they would have had skins as tough as that worn by the whale.”

            Christmas came on Tuesday, 50 years ago.  As early as Friday before a heavy blanket of snow had descended in the valley, continuing over Saturday.  Then on Sunday came a sudden change in temperature, and the unexpected thaw which sent Dayton citizens scurrying for their snow shovels.  Their use in this instance, however, was largely confined to the roofs of houses instead of pavements, since the weight of the snow was so heavy as to endanger those buildings and residences which had been erected many years before.  We get a colorful picture of the scene that Sunday afternoon and evening preceding Christmas eve by turning to the files of our newspaper of 50 years ago.  There we read:

“The heavy fall of snow, followed by sleet and rain has put a weight upon the roofs of houses which strains the weaker ones to their utmost and there are but few which have sheltered completely the wares within.  All day Saturday and Sunday men were employed on the larger buildings removing the snow, and in that way saved many goods.  It takes an exceedingly tight covered roof to resist the attacks of the water from melting snow, as it holds the water on the roof and in a manner forces it into the cracks which has immense weight, and which opens cracks in the roofs.

            “Yesterday, afternoon about1:15 a loud crash in the vicinity of the courthouse warned those persons within hearing that a calamity had come upon some building.  Inquiry proved it to be the carriage shed adjoining the livery stable of  P. O. Werner, situated in the rear of the Arlington House.  The building was of frame.  In all, 16 buggies, belonging to various persons, were badly smashed when the roof collapsed.  The losers are C. F. Tower, W. S. Phelps, George Gross, Dr. J. W. Chiles, Dr. J. M. Weaver, W. Jones, P. O. Werner and H. F. Colby.

            “At about 7 o’clock Mr. Philip Klopfer was informed that water was pouring through his store, evidently coming from the roof.  Goods were moved from under the cataracts and tubs put under the leaks from the roof.  Then the snow was shoveled off of the roof.  About 4 o’clock the roof of Herman Frank’s saloon began to leak and the water ran down the walls and ceilings making it necessary to take up carpets on the second floor.  About half past ten a loud crash gave warning of the giving away of a shed about 25 feet square in the Roehm Bros. Coal yard.  Investigation showed it to have fallen on a wagon, smashing it.

            “Much danger was anticipated last night by the overflow of water in the gutters and many store owners were awakened at midnight and urged to provide means for protecting their goods.  Along Main, Second and Third sts. At 2 o’clock this morning the water was about to pour through the grating into the cellars and several merchants were hard at work striving to turn its course.  The snow had been loosened by its own weight on some of the steep roofs and descended to the earth like an avalanche, breaking telephone wires, battering away signs and tearing away permanent awnings erected over the sidewalks.

            “About a quarter to three this morning water was seen dripping on the goods in the store of Breene & Stettler and the watchman immediately took steps to save the property.  The stock was damaged to the extent of $100.  Immediately above the store is the law office of Col. Corwin.  His books and furniture were also damaged.”

            The thaw, we are assured, served to bring anxious and uneasy moments to hundreds of citizens, but it did not dampen the enthusiasm of those who in that day and time participated in the chief sport of the holiday season - snow racing on W. First st.

            “The thaw of Sunday and Monday did not destroy the sleighing on First st.  Yesterday and a number took advantage of what seemed to be the last for the holidays.” the reported of a half-century ago assures us.  “The track was heavy and badly broken up, but several good races were made up, affording sport for the crowds which had collected along the sidewalks.  Col. Platt, with “Busy Boy,” and Houston Lowe, closely followed by a number of others, had several interesting brushes.  Charles Snyder, Thruston Houk with “Sorrel Dan” and a stranger with a large clipped bay made up a number of interesting races.  Several other good horses came out, but soon retired on account of the heavy track.”

            Thus disposing of the chief sport of the holiday season, fond memories of which still are treasured by the older generation of Daytonians, let us turn for a moment to the newspaper file and see what else occupied the attention of Christmas celebrants 50 years ago.  Let us go back and live again the yuletide season of 1883:

            “The sparrows are not having much boom just now,” commented the reporter.  “It is rather pitiful to see them perches on a snowpile waiting for horses to pass.  We don’t believe they are now fit for Christmas potpie.”

            “Sunday was the premium mean day of the winter.  But we can’t have good things without an occasional sandwich.”

            “Billy Baird and Chris Kiefaber have returned from a 10-day grand quail shooting around Dunkirk, Ind.  Birds were plentiful, farmers were good-natured, and the two dogs, Keen and Mack, worked splendidly.  Rabbits were so abundant as to be a nuisance to the hunters.”

            “This is bonanza weather for blacksmith bosses but hard on the sledge-hammer arms of the brawny workmen.  Last week the 10 men in the Makley shop shod 974 horses all around, and yet there is no rest for them.  The service of one man, a ready reckoner, was required to register the horses and see that they in regular turn received the attention of the smithy.”

            “The governor yesterday extended a Christmas pardon to George M. Moots, convicted in this county in 1979 of horse stealing and who had six months to serve.”

            “A. E. Estabrook has resumed roller skating professionally and is known as the champion of Dayton.  His skating partner, Mr. Lawshe, has just returned from Russia, and they are booked for an appearance in Atlanta.  They skate on their hands, turn backward and forward somersaults and Lawshe leaps to a height of five feet nine inches with his skates on.”

            “The most beautiful of all the Christmas scenes in Dayton is now on exhibition at the residence of Rev. Dr. Barclay, 1616 E. Third st., to which he invites all Dayton children, and others interested in the little ones.  It is really a work of art.  A mountain scene in Germany, with fort, Castle, mill and school, and a pretty fountain at the base sending a jet of water in the air and dripping over a group of little ones sporting in the lake.  The whole is the mechanism of Dr. Barclay, who keeps open house for all until New Year’s night.  It will pay you to go and see it.”

            “Reynolds & Reynolds remembered their employes with Christmas gifts.”

            “The young ladies class of the Baptist Mission remembered Miss Emma Gagel by presenting her as a Christmas memento of their esteem a handsome plush photograph album.”

            “The choir of the Sacred Heart congregation rendered Willard’s mass in B-flat beautifully.  The trio Qui Tollis was artistically rendered by Mrs. J. A. Schenck, soprano; Miss D’Arcy, alto, and W. R. Eckley, tenor.”

            “Christmas eve was celebrated by all the firemen of the city in some appropriate manner.  As the duties of these citizens required their presence at all times in their respective houses, they had to hold their festivities among the reels.  The boys at the Western house were treated to a large cake, donated by Mrs. J. G. Read.  The Central house has a very elaborate spread from a basket of provisions donated by Chas. Burroughs and a purse made up among themselves.  A coal oil stove was borrowed from a nearby store and William Shannon took charge of the culinary department, giving the boys a royal supper.  Everybody in the vicinity at the time was invited and at 9:30 sat down to a menu consisting of oysters, raw, stewed and fried; potatoes, celery, applesauce, coffee, lemonade and temperance drinks.  Speeches were made by several of the firemen and after the meal all came down the slide in true fireman fashion.”

            “Charlie Ewin’s courthouse friends presented him with a pretty smoking jacket for Christmas.”

            “East Fifth st. is again in such a condition that navigation with a small boat is not impossible.”

            “There will be a grand matinee this afternoon and a big boom tonight at the skating rink.”

            Thus the reporter of 50 years ago told the story of Dayton’s holiday celebration, picturing events which older residents will doubtless recall on this more modern Christmas Eve a half century later.  That there was no dearth of entertainment is evidenced by such local items as quoted here. But quite naturally, there had to be a note of tragedy in connection with the celebrations.  It came in the form of a shooting in nearby Trotwood.  The newswriter was considerate, however, and boiled the tragic story down to few words:

            “If the phrase that the only good Indian is a dead one applies to the fraternity of cracksmen as well, then for once George Jones has become a thoroughly good man through the shooting circumstances at Trotwood late Saturday night.  Jones was shot when caught in the act of burglarizing the store of ‘Squire Pfouts.  Since being shot he has manifested an exceedingly lively disposition for one so seriously hurt, and his death yesterday was somewhat in the nature of a surprise.  During the morning hours he appeared quite cheerful and when asked what he would have for breakfast ordered a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.  He ate with an apparent relish, and after the meal walked around in his cell.  About noon he suddenly complained of a faintness and lay down, never to rise again.  It is the opinion of the city physician that the hemorrhage caused by the ball passing through the lungs was the immediate cause of death.  The body was removed to O. P. Boyer’s undertaking establishment.  The dead burglar’s wife called at the jail yesterday to view the remains and was greatly affected.  Thus ends the career of a rather remarkable criminal.”

            Old Music Hall was catering to the playgoers of the community at the time of which we write, and playing most of the big attractions then making one-night tours of the country.  The Christmas attraction at Music Hall 50 years ago on Christmas day was the eminent actor, W. J. Ferguson, in “The Dude.”  Immediately following this offering, and continuing on through Christmas week was that historic old burnt-cork classic, Thatcher, Primrose and West’s Minstrels.  The Jr. O. U. A. M. conducted a fair on Christmas day and evening at the City Hall, while at the Y. M. C. A. association hall a special choir of local voices rendered “The Messiah” on Christmas night.

            Home-talent theatricals flourished then as now, so of course there just had to be an entertainment by at least one group of amateur thespians.  Daytonians high in the social scale were finding a full measure of happiness in this type of theatricals at the time, as witness this notice from the old file:

            “The first ‘dramatic assembly’ took place last evening and was a very delightful affair.  The members of the old ‘Reading club’ enjoyed seeing the interest reawakened in the plays that have been a feature in Dayton social life for so many years, and those who had not had the advantage of being born in time to see the old plays rejoiced in making up for their loss by getting the largest amount of enjoyment possible out of the new.  A pretty little stage had been erected and the comedy of “Woodcock’s Little Game” was presented in a most delightful manner by the following cast:

            “Mr. Woodcock” - P. M. Harman.

            “Mr. Christopher Larkings” - H. E. Mead.

                        “Mr. Adolphus Swanedowne” - C. L. Massey.

            “Davis” - E. J. Patterson.

            “Mrs. Col. Carver” - Mrs. O. E. Brown.

            “Mrs. Woodstock” - Mrs. Earnest Jackson.

            “Mrs. Larkings: - Miss Kitty Houk.


            “Susan” - Miss Stickle.

            There were no traffic officers in that day, for there were no autos to clutter upon the streets and congest the lanes of transportation.  But that does not mean it was unnecessary to keep an eye on those who boasted the then popular vehicle, the horse and buggy.  We find proof

of this in a paragraph from the Christmas issue of our local newspaper:

            “The Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had plenty of business yesterday and Officer Lee Lyman was kept busy.  During the day he took up a horse and sleigh belonging to Councilman Weinrich, both of which were redeemed from the stable by the owner.  Another was taken out of the snow in front of Breene & Stettler’s; a third from in front of Billy West’s and a fourth in McPhersontown.  This belongs to Charles Kruse, and he refused to redeem it.  It is at Harry Good’s stable, and will be sold if the owner does not pay charges.”

            Dayton enjoyed the customary Christmas dinner of good things, though it is surprising to note that there was not a vast difference between the prices paid for foodstuff then and now.  Fifth years ago today eggs were selling at 30c a dozen and butter at 28c a pound.  The lover of rabbit meat could gorge himself at small cost, if he liked, since dressed rabbits were retailing at 20c each.  Turkeys were selling at 12 ½c a pound, and cranberries at 15c a bushel, while beef commanded 12 1/2c and 15c a pound, veal the same, and pork 10c and 12 ½c.  There is no evidence in the old newspaper files that the farmers of the Miami Valley were either crying for “relief” or that they needed it.  Indications are that they did not, since corn was bringing 60c a bushel and wheat $1.05 on the Dayton market 50 years ago.

            And there you have a pretty faithful picture of how Dayton celebrated Christmas a half century ago.  There have been many changes in our mode of living; in our manner of dress; in our means of transportation; in our views of life.  But one thing remains unaltered and unchanged.  That is the Christmas spirit.  It was the same then as now, and it is now the same as it was almost tow thousand years ago when a little group stood anxious and hopeful about a manger on one of Bethlehem’s hills and received it for the first time.

            Dayton’s Christmas 50 years ago was a happy Christmas, for then as now men found new hope in the old story of the Star of Bethlehem.