Mountains, Men & Memories: Eagle County Christmas traditions include Santa, sleigh-rides and turkey shoots
Mountains, Men and Memories
Looking for Santa Claus? He lives in Red Cliff.
Perched on the side of Battle Mountain above Water Street is a cluster of distinct rock formations. The most prominent rock offers a profile view of a slightly rotund, bearded Santa, complete with a pointed hat. Squint a bit, and the shorter surrounding rock formations could be a pack of loyal elves.
No doubt these same rock formations stood sentry over the Christmas celebration of 1899, when the mining camps of Red Cliff and Gilman celebrated Christmas with a dance at the Iron Mask Hotel (named for one of the most productive mines on Battle Mountain). Organized by the Oddfellows Lodge, the $2 per couple admission price included dancing and dinner. The Eagle County Blade newspaper declared the celebration to be “the grand society event of the year.”
The Blade’s Christmas reporting was not so cheerful one year later. An angry editorial warned readers that the Eagle County commissioners, in a hastily-called meeting on Dec. 24, had delivered a questionable gift into taxpayers’ Christmas stockings: the purchase of land in Gypsum for establishment of a County Poor Farm. Throughout the West, such government-funded farms played a major role taking care of the poor, infirm and elderly. Despite the newspaper’s objections, the local Poor Farm served the county’s indigent population (many of them aging miners) until its function was replaced by the New Deal welfare reforms in 1939.
Red Cliff’s rock Santa and elves also stood watch over a joyous Christmas celebration in 1901. Two young ladies from the Red Cliff Sunday school collected donations to fund a visit from Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, the local population gathered around a large Christmas tree at the congregational church. The children presented a literary and musical program. Santa arrived just in time to distribute a wrapped gift to every child. F.V. Burbank, the owner of the local general store, gathered up all the youngsters for a ride in his horse-drawn sleigh, stuffing more than 30 kids into the sled for each ride. “They made the old town ring with song and laughter,” reported the Blade.
Women join the ‘Turkey Shoot’
Notable celebrations also took place downvalley. In 1903, the community of Gypsum observed Christmas Day with a “turkey shoot.” This was not, as the name implies, an event involving feathered carnage. Rather, it was a target-shooting contest, with a dressed turkey as the top prize. Typically, such competitions were men-only events, but on this particular year, a number of local women including Minnie Borah (the wife of famed guide and outfitter Jake Borah), Mrs. George Henry, Miss Iva Beck and Mrs. James Norgaard joined the contest “just to take a little of the conceit out of the men folks,” according to the Blade.
The highest-scoring shooter would carry off the prize. However, she was also obligated to immediately cook a turkey dinner for the “unlucky sisters” whose shooting skills were lacking. The men, a bit wary of the gun-brandishing women, nonetheless placed bets on the potential winners.
Minnie Borah easily won the first bird with an effortless shot that hit the bull’s-eye. Norgaard’s shooting skill also earned a turkey. The newspaper ruefully notes that after the winners departed the grounds to find their aprons and commence with the cooking, the men gradually appeared from where they had been taking cover and the regular match proceeded.
This year, celebrate the historic tradition of a joyous Christmas in Eagle County. Visit Santa Claus Rocks. Enjoy community social events. Show compassion for the less fortunate. Be wary of Christmas gifts from the government. Keep in mind that the woman roasting the turkey might know how to use a rifle.
May your holiday ring with song and laughter.
Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, lives in Eagle. She can often be found in the Eagle Public Library archives, searching out stories of the past. Contact her at email@example.com.
It would be really hard to spark a wildfire anywhere near Vail Mountain or Beaver Creek right now. Still, unattended campfires will always draw attention.