Published: Nov/Dec 2003

The lovely Hillforest Victorian House Museum in Aurora, Ind., is decorated with lots of greenery (top). Fort Scott in Kansas offers an annual candlelight tour of the historic garrison (below). /Michael C. Snell photos

Historic holidays
Historic sites in the Midwest re-create holiday scenes and celebrations that are appropriate for their periods

By Sally M. Snell

There will be no twinkling colorful lights or animated Santas at these holiday events. These selections of holiday happenings at Midwestern historic sites are reflections of the past. They give us a reason to slow our holiday hustle and remember the meaning of Christmas, as well as to share time with family.

Take a moment to enjoy these simpler holiday festivities.

Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

Settled by French-Canadians in the late 1740s, Ste. Genevieve is Missouri’s oldest community.

Three of its structures comprise the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site. Visitors to the 1792 Amoureux House may notice its unusual construction. Poteaux en terre is a style whereby hewn logs that form walls are set upright in an earthen trench. The Felix Vallé House, an American-Federal style residence, is restored and interpreted to the 1830s period, and the Dr. Benjamin Shaw House dates back to 1819. It provides interpretive space for the site.

Guests can experience a traditional 1800s French réveillon feast during the annual French Christmas on Dec. 14 at the Felix Vallé site. The event is free.

“We try to re-create some of the traditional foods you might have seen, some of the different customs, some of the different decorations, and give a sense of what that was like,” said Historic Site Administrator Jim Baker.

Roast goose, bouillon, cheese, wine and oysters were traditional foods served. Thirteen desserts were prepared for Christ and his 12 apostles. Sabots (wooden work shoes) for the children are placed on the hearth for Petit Noël (the Christ child) to fill with nuts and sweets.

Visitors may notice a special chandelier in the home, dressed with greenery, candles, apples and communion wafers. The candles represent Christ, the light of the world. Greenery represents everlasting life, the apples stand for humankind’s downfall and the wafers are our redemption.

Fort Scott, Kan.

Fort Scott, founded in 1842, was one of a series of forts established along the border of the Permanent Indian Frontier from Minnesota to Louisiana. Dragoons and infantry soldiers stationed at the fort until 1853 protected eastern tribes from white settlers and indigenous Indian populations.

Fort Scott was a logistical supply depot for the Union Army during the Civil War. The fort again was closed at the conclusion of the Civil War. Later, troops were called back to Fort Scott to protect railroad crews from raids by neighboring settlers.
Visitors to the Annual Candlelight Tour will not find the fort festooned with holiday decorations.

“Fort Scott was garrisoned as a military outpost from 1842-1853, so the buildings have been restored and reconstructed to that time period,” said Park Ranger Rosemary Frey.

“In the 1840s, Christmas was not really celebrated the way we know it today,” she said. “The soldiers would have continued about their daily routine. There might have been a special meal and exchanging of gifts in the officers’ families, but not much decorating.”

The fort’s Annual Candlelight Tour “kicks off the Christmas season for a lot of people,” said Frey. “One of the visitors last year said ‘this is like a pageant.’ ”
After darkness falls, visitors are led around the fort to watch historical vignettes. This year, the tour will be Dec. 5–6. Tickets are $6 and sold in advance.

Aurora, Ind.

The history of Aurora’s Hillforest Victorian House Museum began in the 1850s when industrialist Thomas Gaff built the home for his family. Visitors with a keen eye will notice details reminiscent of a steamboat in this Italianate home. Its grand design has been attributed to Isaiah Rogers who has been called the “father of the modern hotel.”

The Gaffs, including Thomas and his two brothers, owned a general store, plantations, steamboats, a silver mine, jewelry store, a distillery and brewery, and a mill that is said to have produced the world’s first ready-made commercial cereal.

“You name it, he was involved in it,” said Curator Linda Early.

Their steamboat, Forest Queen, served as Gen. William T. Sherman’s headquarters during the Civil War.

Visitors enter Hillforest through a bowed two-story front. A round room, known as a belvedere for the beautiful view it offers, tops Hillforest. The grounds are considered one of Indiana’s best examples of rusticated landscape. One of the home’s most unique features may be the floor-to- ceiling windows that rise into pockets concealed in the walls.

The holiday decorations of Hillforest match the home’s grandeur. Tall trees, decorated by local florists and civic organizations, may illustrate a progression of styles from the mid-19th century to early 20th. Though large trees are not considered appropriate for 1855, “the Gaffs lived here for over 70 years,” said Head Docent Suzanne Ullrich, “so they would have had all different kind of trees throughout those years.”

The Victorian Christmas Exhibit runs Nov. 18–Dec. 31. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults. The open house is Dec. 14 from 1–5 p.m. Four holiday luncheons ($25) and two holiday dinners ($36) are planned in December. Reservations are required.

Springfield, Ill.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site’s decorations are suitable for the 1860s.
“[Christmas] wasn’t a big deal yet,” said Curator Susan Haake. “That came about 10 or 15 years later. The Lincolns were still fairly simple with their Christmas.”

The furnishings in the home “reflect that they were working toward upper-middle class,” said Haake. “They had a little bit larger house than some of their neighbors, and the furnishings were nice, so they had a little bit of disposable income that a lot of their neighbors probably did not.”

The Lincoln’s purchasing records from local stores helped “to deduce what might be appropriate to have in the house,” said Haake. For example, they never purchased kerosene, but “we do have records of them purchasing candles all the time.”
Decorating ideas sprang from research in period ladies magazines such as “Godey’s” and “Harper’s Weekly.”

“Godey’s was extremely popular,” said Haake. These magazines contained holiday craft projects, such as making an evergreen swag for a window or filling cones with sugared fruit.

Decorating choices also were made by looking at trends of that period on the East Coast and Europe. Large Christmas trees in private homes were unusual for the period, so there is no tree in the Lincoln home.

A typical Christmas dinner is set at the dining table. Foods might have included turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, turnips and oysters.

“Oysters were very hard to get in the Midwest,” said Haake, citing the need to ship them on ice, “so oysters were a special treat.”

Citrus fruit, too, could only be obtained from Florida in the winter, “so a child getting an orange in their stocking was a big deal, because they were not easy to get.”

Decorations are usually installed the first week of December. Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd lived in their Springfield home from 1844 to 1861.

Admission to the home is free, but tickets, available at the Lincoln Home Visitors Center, are required for entry.

Sally Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.

Before you go
For more information, contact:
• Ste. Genevieve Tourism Information Office 1-800-373-7007 or click on;
• Fort Scott National Historic Site (620) 223-0310,;
• Hillforest Victorian House Museum, (812) 926-0087,;
• Lincoln Home National Historic Site, (217) 492-4241,
To plan your historic holiday trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.

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