Friday, December 27, 2013

Montana Yuletides by my GGGrandmother Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann

In an unpublished manuscript,

Montana Yuletides,

Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann, daughter of Montana's First Territorial Governor, 
Sidney Edgerton, 
and my maternal Great, Great Grandmother,
 described her memories of two Christmas celebrations, 

one through the eyes of a disgruntled teen and the other through the eyes of a young mother.

In the opinion of her teenage self, Martha’s first Christmas in Montana was a decidedly unsuccessful affair:

“In Bannack our wishes were not consulted regarding what presents we would like. The merchants did not… cater to the Christmas trade. It was all they could do to provide the absolute necessities, and they often failed to supply these in winter. There were no eggs; no vegetables, no butter; and little in the food line except beef and game.

[That Christmas in Bannack] we hung our stockings as usual on Christmas Eve, but not under the mantle or before the rough stone fireplace that was our only source of warmth. We dangled [them] from some spot near the fireplace, making a goodly show. Having done our part, we went to bed with the full determination to rise betimes, which we did. It was bitterly cold-with the thermometer more depressed than it had ever been in our Ohio home. We scarcely noticed…in our anxiety to investigate the contents of our hosiery. Sitting on the floor before the bright fire that made the room fairly warm … in spots … we examined our presents. I do not remember what the other children had—their gifts did not interest me. Mine—I shall never forget—consisted of a pair of stout shoes. Was I grateful? Not a bit of it. I loathed those shoes, and the Christmas of 1863 was a distinct failure, so far as I was concerned. Like most children, I believed it to be the duty of parents to clothe their children. Shoes coming in that category, I saw no reason why I should regard them as a present!"

Her experience as a young mother in the winter of 1883, trying to please her children during a lonely isolated Christmas on the family homestead outside of Great Falls, takes a very different tone:

“In December of 1883 at the near approach of the holiday season, Mr. Rolfe was out on one of his business affairs; the weather, with its usual Montana uncertainty, becoming colder, making it doubtful when he would return. We were living in a small farm house on our homestead claim on the side of the hill above town, near the old state road. We were supplied with food, but my husband expecting to be back before Christmas had made no preparation for Christmas, nor did he leave me any money to do so. I could not walk to town, and I had two little girls and a baby to be made happy on the Day of Days. I could not disappoint them. A tree would be a delight…but there was no tannenbaum nearer than the Highwoods. I thought and thought…in front of our house we planted the previous summer two small cottonwood trees…unfortunately being unwatered, they promptly gave up the ghost. Armed with a meat saw, I attacked the shapelier of the two and soon laid it low. I then [found] some evergreen growing in draws not far away. Gathering an armful of this, I wrapped it about the dead limbs, fastening it with thread and behold! The tree was ready, but where were the ornaments, lights and toys? Once more resourceful, I brought out my rag bag. Some black silk stockings were converted into a … [doll] family, well clothed and wearing plenty of jewelry devised from discarded hat trimmings. Next came decorations consisting of popcorn together with whatever could serve the purpose from the rag bag and old hats. But who ever heard of a Christmas tree unlighted! Tallow candles cut into short lengths and fastened to the tree with considerable difficulty, provide the lighting. Bags of home-made candy and the smaller gifts hung on the tree, the rest piled at its base. The candles lighted, the door opened and the children entered; their eyes large with wonder and delight. I think they never saw a more enjoyable Christmas, and I know I never did, from witnessing their pleasure!”

Martha Edgerton, born in 1849, first came to Montana in the winter of 1863 with her parents, Sidney and Mary Wright Edgerton. In August 1876, she married fellow teacher Herbert Percy Rolfe, who became editor of the Great Falls Leader. In 1895 Herbert died and Martha assumed the editorship. In October 1895, Martha married her business manager Theodore Plassmann, but was widowed again by the following fall. Martha undertook a series of business ventures, including life insurance sales, poetry writing, and cattle ranching. She wrote articles for the Missoulian, assisted in the election of Lewis Duncan as mayor of Butte, and participated in the Missoula IWW free speech fight. In the 1920s she began writing historical articles for the Great Falls Tribune and the Montana News Association, basing many upon her own experiences. Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann died on September 25, 1936, in Great Falls, at the age of 86.

My Great, Great Grandmother’s writings are one of many collections in the Montana Historical Society Research Center. I've only ever been able to research online but it is a dream of mine to one day travel there and read the records they hold of my relatives in person. 

Source: Martha Edgerton Plassmann Papers, 1863-1939 (MC 78, Box 4)

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