Fargo’s Christmas Grinch
In the first Christmas Datebook written five years ago, Merry Helm related the story on how Fargo's first Christmas Tree had been stolen from a boxcar on the sidetrack in front of the Headquarters Hotel. The Grinch-like suspects in this despicable deed were none other than Jack O'Neil, Sallie O'Neil and Dave Mullen, and they, along with a number of others, were hung in effigy from the railroad bridge over the Red River that night. Datebook listeners will recall that this was the same group of ruffians who followed the railroad to Bismarck the following year. The O'Neil's would be run out of town and Dave Mullen was killed by the Seventh Cavalry in a shootout on November 10, 1873 in Bismarck.
But there was also a cheery side to this story, which actually involved two trees. A Moorhead church group had arranged for a Christmas tree for their church service and invited the people from Fargo. But the Fargo folks decided to get a tree of their own ... a tree for all the children to enjoy regardless of their church or creed. So, J. B Chapin donated $10.00 to the cause to start things rolling. John Jennings telegraphed the agent in Brainerd for two of the finest trees that could be found. Quickly the railroad boys in Brainerd got the trees and loaded them without charge. They were shipped in a boxcar and the engineer got them to Fargo without any freight charges. It was that night that the infamous theft took place with a light snowfall concealing all trace of the culprits. The hanging of the O'Neil's and Mullen in effigy was attributed to the North West Regulators and the thieves evidently got the message as the trees were quickly returned.
Fargo's tree was set up at 27 Front Street. Nearly $400 was raised for decorations, an extravagant sum in those days. The amount of money was much more than needed, so silver half dollars were suspended from the tree, enough for one for each child under fourteen years of age as a gift. Large locomotive headlights lit the tree from behind.
When Santa arrived at the gathering, his ladder broke as he was sneaking into the building through a window to surprise the children, delaying his appearance! Thankfully, this happened out of sight of the gathered crowd, and a speech was made to assure the children that Santa was seen coming over the Pembina Hills. Santa finally regrouped and made his appearance, and a six-piece band from Wild Rice began to play and everyone danced until morning. So, even in 1873, in remote Dakota Territory, the Grinches were unable to stop Christmas.
By Jim Davis
Dakota Datebook December 25, 2003
Dakota Datebook October 10, 2007
The Bismarck Tribune December 25, 1916