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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Bartender Who Saved Christmas

The Christmas of 1874 in Medford, Wisconsin, looked pretty dismal. The Panic of 1873 had spawned hard times rather like our own. Around the country, more than 18,000 businesses failed and unemployment reached 14%. Merchants up north in rural Medford were unable to obtain toys and treats to be stocked for Christmas.

As winter locked down the town, shelves in the few stores were stripped even of basic necessities and not a piece of candy or a single toy was to be had anywhere. By Dec. 20th the children were really anxious, and each time a train pulled into town a flock of youngsters would be waiting at the station to see what it held. Each time they were disappointed, as day after day no Christmas treats were unloaded.

"Of course, they all believed in Santa Claus," recalled one of them years afterwards, "but some of the older ones had a suspicion that if these things were not in the stores, Santa would have a pretty hard time filling their stockings... When nothing arrived on the train from the south on the 23rd, it was a very dejected bunch of kids who went back to their homes from the depot.

"Christmas looked pretty uninviting with nothing but the usual pork and beans, or maybe flapjacks and black molasses for most of them; but they just couldn't give up, — they were back at the depot the next day. At first it looked as if they were again doomed to disappointment. Finally, the trainmen unloaded a barrel for Charley LeClaire who kept a saloon, dance hall and a few groceries, near where the Harley Stimm barber shop is now located.

"LeClaire was there, and knowing what was in the barrel, broke in the head and gave the whole barrel of popcorn balls to the children and everybody in the crowd."

That may seem like poor Christmas to us today, when many 10-year-olds get PSPs or iPods under the tree. But back then most rural kids were delighted to find an orange or some other rarity on Christmas morning. Popcorn balls were a treat indeed, and the whole town applauded their saloon-keeper for saving the holiday (and faith in Santa Claus).

For more stories of Christmas in times past, follow the links in this earlier Odd Wisconsin piece. And to revisit the world of your own childhood Christmases, browse through hundreds of Christmas pictures at Wisconsin Historical Images.

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 21, 2011
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