The Christmas of the Early Settlers
Undated newspaper clipping from Philip Phair’s Journals at the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library, Presque Isle
Pertains to Ashland, Maine
Probably written by George Rowell

The type of Christmas that came to the old-timers of the Aroostook valley was far from being the Christmas we enjoy today.

Away back in the years between 1840 and 1850, there were not roads, the better class of single wagons were all of the thorough-bred kind.  At first the brace supporting the body was of leather that shaded into those made of raw hide as the leather gave out.  There were but few horses; most of the farmers depended on oxen to haul the huge sticks of square pine timber.  The knight of the goad stick was a man of considerable importance.  They were artists in their time but have passed away.

Old Warren Russel who located at Portage Lake with the Hon. Nathaniel Blake was one of the best known; old Captain Asa Brown was another who could steer a long line of oxen through the mazes of the woods and drag out the five and eight ton sticks of pine.  Others were content with one large ox, who worked in a single yoke, whose huge bulk was almost enough to tax the resources of the small grass field and could easily devour all of the grain raised on the place.

Every family had a home-made loom and sheep were highly prized, not everyone who had a loom frame possessed a loom harness and hand cards for preparing the wool for spinning,.  Both were freely loaned.

Caps were made of rabbit, sable and squirrel skin.  If one cared to excel in ferocious looks, his cap was made of the moose skin the long hairs standing out in a bristling form.  Many of the winter costumes were grotesque in the extreme.  The feet were often encased in the skin taken from the shanks of the moose.

Many lived in small shed roofed camps and slept beneath moose and caribou skins with camp fires that burned like the lamps of the vestal Virgins.  Of a winters morning the blue smoke could be seen here and there ascending from the woods.

When Christmas came round but little effort was made to spread the table for a feast beyond the roasting of a spare rib or filling of the spacious Dutch oven with a savory stew seasoned with shore onions, gathered and laid away in earth, as celery is kept at the present time.

A savory cup of coffee was imitated by boiling the chocolate roots that grew in abundance along the margins of the brooks.  Apple pie was imitated by slicing pumpkins into small bits, and given character by a mixture of vinegar and molasses.  Mush and molasses was the most common dainty served at table.  Chairs were blocks sawed from a log, or home made frames buttoned with either cedar bark or that taken from the elm tree.

Grain was all threshed by the hand flail, and more self- praise was wasted over that occupation than all others put together.  In summer the skin of the eel was eagerly sought for flail strings.

When two men wen threshing together the breaking of a flail string was sometimes a dangerous occurrence and in a few instances resulted in a rough and tumble fight that made the straw look like the field of Waterloo the morning after the battle.

Personal strength and prowess were matters of pride and a victor in a brawl was a hero until someone else keel hauled him in the dust.

There was but little visiting; until the roads were made passable in winter there was not travel enough to keep the roads open.

It was a common thing for the whole settlement at the cross roads in Ashland to turn out with shovels and bring a traveler in from the eastern hills.

The earliest Christmas the writer recollects where there was a gathering of children was in Capt. Brown’s log camp.  He lived on the farm afterwards owned and operated by Luther Butler, about a mile north of the Corners.  Capt. Brown was the father of Miss Oliver who married Rufus Coffin.

Capt. Brown was a delightful old man, six feet two in height, good natured, kind, warm-hearted.

About a dozen of the street arabs, including the writer, went to his place in his absence, on Christmas and ate up a large loaf of molasses gingerbread, and rollicked in his broad bunk.  A few were asleep when the good man came in and caught us in a trap.

“Glad to see you boys,” was what he said.  He went into another room locked with a padlock and chain and brought out a dipper of spruce beer.  He seemed delighted to have the children about him.  Christmas had come to him in a way that had “softened” his heart.

The next year a small company dew up a paper, and signed it, inviting Benj. Hews, the best educated man in the community to prepare himself and deliver a Christmas talk, to be delivered in the unfinished school-house.

When Christmas eve came round, about fifty assembled in the room.  The first stove that came to the place was red with heat.  Mr. Hews did nicely for a few minutes but broke down with emotion, when he talked of the many homes far away, that the company had so recently left.  He lost his bearings and sat down.

A few impromptu remarks were made by others.  Then Amerien and the Doxology were sung from a singing book that the writer thinks was called the Psalter.

The pitch was caught from a tuning fork by David G. Cook, then each one caught his tone from him.  They were not always in unison when starting in, but soon slid up or down to their required places.

Children knew scarcely anything about Santa Claus for he rarely left them anything more than a little molasses candy.  There was nothing to excite their wonder of Awake their love for him to yearn for the beautiful things received as at present.

The writer can well remember an occasion when mother stitched all night the night before Christmas to finish a little pair of satinette pants for him.

As for sending outside for presents none thought of such extravagance.  Scarcely a man in the neighborhood had money enough to purchase a postage stamp.

Thanksgiving was made very much more of than Christmas.  Children understood what it was to feast on the best that mother could prepare.  It came when there was rather more to make a variety for the table, but Christmas was a time that softened the hearts of the older people – a time of contemplating the old home, the old folks and their own prospects and as each Christmas morn came round they saw themselves and the little settlement nearer to the time when their farms would be free from stumps, a small orchard in bearing, and a white house with green blinds take the place of the one made of logs.

Those who were the earliest to observe Christmas on the Aroostook River were the Indians that came up from Tobique.  They had music books written in Latin most probably given them by Catholic missionaries.  They kept Sunday better than most of the whites did, and observed Christmas with a good deal of joyful spirit of the present day.  They intoned their music in which everyone joined who was in the wigwam.

A few years later when men began to keep the “O-be-joyful” a new supply was obtained for the holidays.

About nine miles south of Masardis lived an old Scotsman by the name of Matheson.  He was a character.  One leg was an inch shorter and that foot turned out considerably.  He had the old Scotch brogue with a good deal of quaint though sound horse sense.

A temperance watchman’s club had been formed to combat the evil.

D. G. Cook was one of the leading spirits.  Matheson was incorrigible and irrepressible.  He never was completely stayed from dealing in whiskey.

One time word came to the clubroom that Matheson had a new supply.  A raid was planned and carried out successfully.  A party made the old man a visit and uncovered a ten gallon keg of whiskey that was buried in the snow.  The keg was brought to Cook’s barn late in the evening the night before Christmas.

Some boys who were out a little late observed what was going on, managed to effect an entrance to the stable and secured the keg.  Christmas was celebrated that year in the most likely manner.  There are old residents in Ashland now who can without a doubt recall that Christmas.

In the year 1845 Septimus Bearce, who married Rebekah Walker, entertained a party of friends at Christmas and had what was most likely the first Christmas tree for the children.

The newt year Joseph Walker who lived on the farm later owned by W. H. McNally, made a Christmas time.  He had a large family of boys and girls; others of the neighborhood joined the family to have a tree.  The writer was one of those present.  Dinner was served in the front room of the log home, then occupied by the oldest son, Hartwell and wife.  The great dish was a pigs feet stew reinforced by a roast spare rib.

A few thankful efforts were made to observe the day thus early, but no united effort was made until in the fifties after the Rev. Mareus R. Keep came to the place from Bangor.  He was a man for the time and place, full of energy and rugged health.  He visited Mount Katahdin twice prior to 1855.  The second time he guided a party of gentlemen and ladies, lost their way and were obliged to follow a brook to find their way back.

There was no very great lack of ministers and missionaries during the summer months but when the leaves began to look crisp and sear, they headed for the south to spend the winter in the region where houses were plastered with lime instead of being chinked and daubed with mud.

About this time spirit rapping and table tipping made its appearance and caused no small stir among the religious minds and those of the community who tried to celebrate Christmas in a thankful spirit.

As the evenings began to lengthen out, and all prudent housewives were in the midst of candle dipping, word went creeping from house to house that the devil had a place of meeting where quite a number met to do business with him.

A table tipper and spirit rapper had been discovered holding secret meetings in the back parlor of the residence of Wm. H. McNally at the corners.  They were worse than the witches of Salem.  There were rumblings of dire calamities to be visited on those engaged in the business.  When the writer’s father learned that his promising son was the medium through which the devil was corrupting the new settlement a good licking persuaded the young aspirant to quit the business.