Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

A Pioneer Reports Kennewick's 1st Strong Oarsmen Yule Tree

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, December 18, 1960, page 16.

In 1890 the community population of Kennewick had grown to a dozen families. A splendid community spirit existed. The pioneers welcomed new neighbors. A school district had been formed. A school house was built. There now was a Community Meeting Place. The Christmas celebration could be a community affair. A meeting was held in the new school house. A program for the celebration was adopted. Committees were appointed to perform certain duties.

No evergreen trees grew in this immediate area. The committee appointed to secure an evergreen for the community tree was composed of Captain Charles E. Lum and Charley Aune. Aune was the chief local lineman for the Western Union Telegraph Co. in this area. Lum was a hardy, early pioneer, one of the founders of Kennewick. He had been a steamboat Captain on the Mississippi in Mark Twain's time. Aune had previously served in the navy of his native Norway. Two finer, water wise, and more powerful oarsmen could not be found.

They rowed down the Columbia in Lum's skiff to a juniper grove on the sandy shore between Ainsworth and Wallula. With much care and searching they found a tree large enough for a beautiful community Christmas tree. The two men cut down the tree, then carried it over a mile to the skiff. It was placed lengthwise in the skiff. Lum sat in the bow seat, Aune in the next.

The trip downstream had been easy. The return trip up Humley Rapids was terrific. Less skilled and weaker oarsmen would never have made it. At sundown the two tired men pulled into Captain Lum's moorage at Kennewick. They rested for a short time, then picked up the tree and carried it a half mile farther to the school house. "These were the days of iron men and wooden ships."

Other committees had been appointed. One was composed of women. Their function was to see to the decoration of the tree and the preparation of a Santa Claus outfit. The committee met. Captain Lum's wife, a fine seamstress, was delegated to order from Walla Walla the necessary materials to make a Santa Claus suit, also candles and candle holders for lighting the tree and a Santa Claus false face and beard. She ordered the proper amount of red calico to make Santa Claus' coat, pants and cap and enough cotton batting to trim them. Boots were plentiful in these early days. The tree was erected in the school house. Chains of strung popcorn and wild red rose hips were draped and festooned around the tree.

Time passed. The ordered materials from Walla Walla did not arrive. Consternation reigned. Some arrangement must be worked out to supplement Santa Claus' duties, in the event the ordered materials were lost in transit. The time of the celebration was Christmas Eve. The committee on the celebration arrangements waited as long as possible for the arrival of the materials. They did not come.

Something had to be done to get them out of the predicament. (Leave it to the pioneers to do that). They decided that Captain Lum should be dressed as an elderly Negro. He should knock on the school house door at about the time Santa Claus was expected. When admitted, he would state that he was hungry but wished to earn his food. Since Santa Claus had not arrived he would like his job of taking the presents from the tree.

Charles Jayson Beach attended the door. He was glad that the Christmas tree candles had not arrived. His entire family had almost been burned to death in the terrible Chicago fire of 1871. He had arranged coal oil lanterns to give light to the tree. They were not decorative but gave sufficient light. Captain Lum's good wife worked all day preparing the Negro attire. She took her husband's black broadcloth wedding suit, sewed on white patches here and there and at the seams. Her husbands sandy hair must be covered. She fashioned a tight scull cap from black calico that tightly fitted his head. To imitate curly gray hair, she sewed on curly gray waste which she secured from the railroad. She collected beer bottle corks and burned them to color his face and hands.

Almost every family of the community came to the celebration. It was a merry gathering. They enjoyed the entertainment. Many met for the first time. At the proper time there was a loud knocking at the school house door. Mr. Beach opened it. An elderly negro sought entrance. Beach invited him in. He threw back his head and gave a merry chuckle; then looked at everyone and everything and said: "Where's you'alls Santy Clause? You'll needs some un to take dem presents off dat tree". Beach told him he could have the job if he wanted it. He replied: "I shore duz boss" and did a cake-walk from the door to the tree. Babbling a jovial Negro patter, he took the presents from the tree. There were no Negroes in the entire Tri-City region at this time. The children had never seen one before; they hadn't seen one now. Lum was like the white End Men in the old colored Minstrel shows. He could act the part of a Negro better than the Negro himself. Despite the inconveniences caused by the lost materials, the celebration was a great success.

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