The ghosts of pioneer Christmas past

The Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life’s annual Pioneer Christmas was canceled due to extreme weather.

by Thomas Q. Johnson

The decision to call off Christmas did not come easy for Terry Swanson, the site manager of the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life. Faced with single-digit temperatures and massive snowfall, Swanson made the necessary calls Wednesday afternoon to cancel her site’s annual Pioneer Christmas event for the first time in its history.

“Almost every year we’ve been dumped on with snow,” said Swanson, who remembers her husband having to plow the area clear with his truck in the past, “but with a good chunk of the program taking place out of doors, this weather seemed too risky for the children and staff involved.”

Pioneer Christmas is a key event for the Gibbs Museum, a simple homestead located near the southeast corner of Les Bolstad Golf Course.

At the event, the site’s historical buildings are reborn as a working pioneer encampment replete with farm animals, cornhusk angels and holiday treats all hosted by actors playing historical figures who actually celebrated Christmas on the site during the mid-1800s.

Over 220 individuals had RSVP’d for this year’s Pioneer Christmas as of Wednesday, with a majority being families with children under the age of five. While Swanson agrees that the snow can make the museum really quite beautiful, it was the cold that really made her change her mind.

“Anybody that comes to our site, we want to experience what life was like in the 1800s,” Swanson said, “in these kinds of temperatures, the cold is all that people would be thinking about.”

The focus of the Pioneer Christmas program is on Jane Gibbs, the remarkable woman who first came to territorial Minnesota with a missionary family in the 1830s. After moving moved to Illinois, she returned to Minnesota with her husband Heman – no relation to the champion of the universe – and established the homestead that is now the museum.

The stories of Jane socializing with her neighbors, getting to know the Dakota people in the area, and learning to live on the prairie that are told during Pioneer Christmas are all drawn straight from diaries, letters and newspaper accounts of the time.

Unlike many historic settlements that have been moved from their original location over the years, such as the Ard Godfrey House in Northeast Minneapolis’ Chute Square, the Gibbs family homestead is set on its original plot of land.

A lot has changed since the 1800s, from the introduction of indoor climate control to a steady food supply and Netflix instant queue, but the core of the pioneer’s experience is something that we can still recognize, Swanson said.

“We haven’t completely lost their sense of holiday spirit,” she said. But with so much emphasis on presents, a rarity in Jane Gibbs’ time, “it does get fuzzy sometimes.”

Of course,  the Gibbs family wouldn’t have a choice but to go ahead with Christmas.

“They would have found a way,” Swanson said, “People were very hearty back then.”