Ruth White Burns of Clovis displays gifts that were placed under Portales’ first Christmas tree in 1899. The gifts were passed on to her by her grandmother, Ora Wood.
Editor’s note: The writer is the granddaughter of Ora and R.L. “Bob” Wood, who came to the area in the 1880s. She is the daughter of Eddie White and Rose Powers White, who was an early chronicler of local history. It is from Mrs. White’s interviews with old-timers that this story originates.
The early settlers of eastern New Mexico came together to celebrate the first Christmas on the High Plains in 1899.
I have heard many times from my grandmother, Ora Wood, the story of the First Christmas Tree. Even after 50 years, her eyes would still light up when she talked about it.
On this cold December day, there was not yet a town by the name of Clovis. There were no Curry or Roosevelt counties; all the area was included in Chaves County. The Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railway by-passed the present site of Clovis, going from Amarillo to Texico to Cameo (about eight miles south of Clovis) to the fledgling town of Portales to Roswell and on to Pecos, Texas.
After the line was completed in early 1899, a group of businesses sprang up near the railroad, and the little town of Portales was born.
The homesteaders, called “nesters” by the ranchers, increasingly poured in and filed their claims on what had been open range land.
This is the way that the newborn town of Portales shaped up in December of 1899. There were two or three general stores, a few saloons, wagon yards, a hotel, lumber yard, blacksmith shop, barber shop and many businesses still operating out of wagons. Several homes were completed, and more were under construction. There were numerous tent houses and many adobe dwellings and dugouts on the surrounding farms.
A school and a Sunday school had been organized, but there was no doctor, no druggist, no law or courts, no land office, no churches, no undertaker, no electric lights or running water. The mail still came in by train and was left in a box at Uncle Josh Morrison’s store.
The people in the community decided it would be a good idea to celebrate Christmas together. It was planned for months ahead of time, and the word went out to all the far flung farms and ranches.
Inquiries came in to Uncle Josh about various presents; toys, dishes, tools, and so forth. If he couldn’t supply them, they were ordered from Amarillo or Colorado City, Texas.
Uncle Joe Lang and another man took a four-horse team and wagon and went to the brakes up near Tucumcari to get a tree. It took them three days to go and find a suitable tree and bring it back. They set it up in the depot, as it was the only building in town with a room big enough to hold everybody. The depot was a frame building with a corrugated roof that stood across the end of what is now Main Street.
That afternoon several ladies decorated the tree with the garlands of popcorn, bright red apples, candy canes, and little toys. They put tiny candles in little tin holders and placed them on the branches.
There were piles of presents stacked under the tree; some were jokes and some were nice presents. There were saddles, bridles, potatoes, spurs, onions, silverware, dishes and toys — gifts for everyone.
People began arriving right after supper. Cowboys and ranch families left their teams at the wagon yards and came on to the depot. Some of them had come as much as 50 miles to be at the celebration.
“Soon the waiting room was crowded with noisy, jolly people,” recalled Ora Wood. “The room was almost as bright as a sunny day for the depot agent had managed to get an engine headlight, and it was fastened up on the wall opposite the tree.
“Everybody was talking and laughing and milling around. Suddenly, a loud clanking was heard on the tin roof.
“’That is Santa’s sleigh with his reindeer,’ said someone; though we learned afterward that some of the big boys were just dragging an iron chain across the tin.
“Sure enough, in a minute we heard a banging at the door, and when it was opened, Santa Claus came riding right into the room mounted on a little gray donkey.
“Santa didn’t have on his red suit, but he had bushy, white whiskers.
And he wore a long overcoat trimmed with white cotton for fur. You could see that he had on cowboy boots and his hat looked just like the one Frank Boykin wore when he was herding cattle. Come to think of it, his voice was like Frank’s too; but that didn’t bother anybody, and they all laughed and began pushing the little children forward to speak to him.
“He had a big tow-sack full of presents, and right away, he started handing them out. Then all the young boys helped him by running back and forth delivering presents from the piles at the foot of the tree.”
Some of the presents received that night included:
• Mrs. Wood got a sidesaddle and a Navajo saddle blanket and a pretty set of six red tumblers with a pitcher to match.
• Little Eddie White, her 8-year-old son, got a comb and brush in a leather case, and his brother Bill, who was 4 years old, got a little metal fire wagon with two prancing horses to pull it.
• Mrs. Morrison got a fancy castor to set on the table with bottles for oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar; many years later, she willed it to my grandmother, and that was the start of Grandma Wood’s collection.
• Buck Dobbs gave his sister, Jim Dobbs Burke, a little silver heart with a red stone on a silver chain.
n Lizzie Boykin got a pretty metal powder box from Sid.
• Mattie Mitchell Carr, received a pair of glass vases to set on shelves on either side of a mirror.
• Miss Ella Turner got a beautiful bouquet of white chrysanthemums from Mrs. Josh Morrison.
• Sam Birdwell, the railroad agent, gave Mrs. Wood a green glass vase.
• All the little girls got sets of cups and saucers from John and Henry Hughes, who had a small store.
• One of the men got a ladies’ bustle.
Everyone got a sack of candy.
After the festivities were over, some families drove home in their wagons and buggies, some spent the night with friends or at the hotel, and some camped out in the wagon yard near their teams.
The celebration was a bright spot in the sometimes hard and dreary lives of pioneers.