BACK IN THE DAY: GHOSTS OF DENTON CHRISTMAS PAST

By Shaun Treat

  Holiday lights deck-out Denton’s old City Hall building, ca 1950s. Photo from   texashistory.unt.edu. 

Holiday lights deck-out Denton’s old City Hall building, ca 1950s. Photo from texashistory.unt.edu. 

Denton sure knows how to celebrate the Yuletide holidays, amply evidenced with the recent Christmas Tree Lighting and Wassail Festival, or the frighteningly fun Krampustag shenanigans on the Square. Today, we take a romp through Denton’s history and revisit some of our more notable local holiday happenings from Back in the Day


In History and Reminiscences of Denton County (1918), Ed Bates collects a few accounts that offer a snapshot of our frontier past that involved a whole lot of feasting and marrying. The very first marriage in Denton County took place during Christmas of 1844, with the Rev. Hammonds uniting Shelton Luttrell and Bettie Dierce in front of their log cabin’s hearth. The lovebirds were apparently married without proper paperwork, however, so in an oh-so-Denton twist four years later, they were officially hitched again "with two children in their arms" during the nuptials. Despite stories of ample hardship during these early days, an account from B.L. Rogers recalls: "In 1850, when we first came here, there were two bunches of mustangs near Elm. Buffalo were plentiful just west of Denton. Antelope, deer, wild turkey, bear and panthers were plentiful. Fresh wild meat was plentiful everywhere. When we got out of meat it was an easy matter to kill all we needed. Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys were always fat and plentiful. I guess a two-horse wagon wouldn't more than hold the wild turkeys I have killed, first and last."

Another 1868 Christmas letter reported a hunting party having returned with quite the bounty of prairie hens to be shared amongst neighbors, and "F.E. Piner alone had enough for four or five families." After regaling his reader with tall tales of a close encounter between Thomas Fry and a calf-eating giant cougar, or Thomas Poindexter having "pulled a rattlesnake six feet long from under a log” with “fifteen rattles… the biggest rattlesnake I ever saw," the writer then reports that Dr. R.A. McKennon and Miss Sarah L. Carter were married the day before Christmas by the circuit-riding Rev. J.C. Smith. "That old man does more marrying than all the rest of the preachers and justices in Denton County put together," the writer marveled. Winter gets cold, y’all.

  Sheriff Andy Anderson assists Santa in helping spread some Christmas cheer to Denton residents, circa 1960s. Photo from  texashistory.unt.edu. 

Sheriff Andy Anderson assists Santa in helping spread some Christmas cheer to Denton residents, circa 1960s. Photo from texashistory.unt.edu. 

Then there’s an entertaining encounter from Christmas 1870, when a pilfering teenager was surprised in J.M. McNeil & Co.'s store about six o'clock on Thursday night of Christmas week. “Jim Smith happened to go to the store and opened the door and found the [boy] with his arms full of Christmas goods and filling his paunch full with candy and sugar,” the letter reports with a hint of amusement. “Jim said that he was really afraid that the negro was going to make himself too sick to enjoy Christmas dinner so he called Bob Murphy and they arrested the boy." Casual racism of the day aside - but duly-noted, and annoying - ain’t that still about the friendliest-sounding holiday arrest report you’re ever likely to read?

The hands-down most infamous holiday happening, though, was the scandalous arson that consumed the first split-rail log Denton County Courthouse and its neighboring businesses on the north side of the Square in 1875. The inferno was sparked the night of Christmas Eve, burning the two-story 20-by-40 wooden structure and most county records therein, despite the best efforts of a hastily assembled bucket brigade. According to one family history: “In the aftermath of the first fire, the few records that survived in the burned courthouse were transferred to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (now present-day St. Andrew Presbyterian Church), located on the corner of West Oak and Bolivar Streets. Yet within a few weeks of that move, another fire erupted in the church, completely destroying it and the few remaining county records contained inside.

This time, suspicions of arson found a focus: Texas outlaw Sam Bass’s ne’er-do-well friend, Henry Underwood, a local horse rustler. Underwood was indicted for the courthouse arson and jailed for approximately six months, but Denton County District Attorney Emory Smith was forced to dismiss the charge against Underwood on grounds of insufficient evidence.” Ole Henry later rode with the notorious Sam Bass Gang robbing banks and trains, but finally disappeared after Bass’ death, never to be seen again.

 

  The Truett family dressed as "hillbillies" for their 1974 Christmas card because… Denton? Photo from   texashistory.unt.edu. 

The Truett family dressed as "hillbillies" for their 1974 Christmas card because… Denton? Photo from texashistory.unt.edu. 

 

Tthe holidays are also very notorious for Dentonite charity and goodwill, as the above pictures attest. When the Kiwanis Club of Denton was established on December 6 of 1921, one of the first acts by charter members was organizing an annual toy-drive event at the Denton County Courthouse on the Square, which provided Christmas gifts for more than 400 needy children that first year and continues the tradition still today. Other charitable groups like Serve Denton and the Denton County Friends of the Family or the soup kitchen Our Daily Bread are among numerous local nonprofits also helping needy families right here close to home.

  This smiling Dentonite is one of a cadre of women who knitted gifts for soldiers during the war, ca. 1942. Photo from   texashistory.unt.edu. 

This smiling Dentonite is one of a cadre of women who knitted gifts for soldiers during the war, ca. 1942. Photo from texashistory.unt.edu. 

We at WDDI wish y’all the happiest of holidays with your cherished friends and families. We’d also ask that YOU, our dear reader, take just a moment to click over to one of these fine charities and generously gift a Christmas donation. We certainly take great pleasure in freely sharing these stories of Denton with you, and humbly ask that this gift is paid forward to those who desperately need kindness in these trying times. After all, as many of us were reminded during the 2013 Icepocalypse, neighbors helping neighbors is maybe the best Denton holiday tradition of all, one that seems to have been true since way back in the day.   


Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, former UNT professor and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.