An Old-Time Rocky Mountain Christmas 4

The Heart of Holidays Past in Glenwood Springs

Glittering lights, boughs of evergreen, snowy mountainsides, gatherings, goodwill and smiles on the faces of every child in town: it’s Christmastime in Glenwood Springs.

But what year is it? 2016? 1916? Even earlier? With just the list above for reference, time is difficult to discern; while much has indeed changed in our valley home over the decades, some things never do—epecially our love of Christmas. Although there are quite a few more vehicles on Grand Avenue nowadays, and new iPhones have replaced ice skates and china dolls under the tree, you can still find all of the above in town today just as you could more than a century ago.

For locals who celebrate the season, Christmas here is simply beyond compare—and it has been that way since pioneer days.

Let’s rewind the clock and picture the scene: it’s December 1887, only two years after Glenwood Springs has been officially incorporated, and many residents are busy gathering for the young settlement’s first Christmas program. The teachers and children of the town have prepared a presentation to be given at the brand new two-story schoolhouse on Blake Avenue, which even has electric lights and steam heating! The school has been decorated to welcome members of the community, and students plan on giving several showings of their entertainment to accommodate many small groups of visitors.

In a town known for its tough population of miners, gamblers, wanderers and rugged entrepreneurs, the new school represents a true brick-and-mortar settling of Glenwood Springs—a sign that the old rough and tumble camp formerly known as Defiance is softening into a real town with young people, education and, yes, even family-oriented holiday celebrations.

As time rambles on into the 20th century, the children of Glenwood remain at the heart of its Christmas spirit. In the early 1900s, holiday programs are held annually at all the area churches, including St. Stephens Catholic Church, the First Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church. The religious organizations’ youth often help decorate trees and make wreaths and evergreen arches to adorn the church interiors, which open their doors to welcome townspeople for an assortment of gatherings and services.

December snow falling across the region is a delight to the young and young-at-heart, especially as it enables polished sleighs to carry residents to and fro in the fresh powder, their sleigh bells jingling merrily with each turn. They glide through downtown, where shops are stocked with candy, gifts and other special Christmas items. Many people also choose to order presents via mail, and local United States Postal Service workers are busy delivering packages—some even hauling loads on small sleds through the streets.

The holiday delivery story of one such dedicated postman, rural mail carrier George Gibbons Hayes, quickly becomes the stuff of local legend. It’s Christmas Eve 1914, and he has been tasked with delivering the mail to Sunlight Coal Camp some 12 miles to the south. Just a dusting of snow has fallen in Glenwood, so he begins the route on his motorcycle—only to find it useless as the drifts deepen higher in elevation.

At this point, Hayes, who reported that he had experienced disappointing Christmases as a child, takes it upon himself to not let the youngest residents of Sunlight down. He gathers all the mail and packages on his back and trudges the remaining miles to camp in waist-deep snow, arriving half-frozen and exhausted at nearly 1 a.m. early Christmas morning, not unlike a real-life Saint Nicholas. Upon his arrival, he is greeted with boiling hot coffee. He then rests, knowing that the coal miners’ children will be able to open their Christmas surprises in the morning, thanks to his good deed.

The following year, the happy hearts of local children again remain top priority among residents as the first municipal Christmas tree is placed at 8th Street and Grand Avenue for all to enjoy. As the Glenwood Post reports on December 11, 1915, “Glenwood will have a community Christmas tree this year, and all the kiddies of the neighborhood will be made glad.”

A group of local women has set about to gather funds to provide all who attend a special Christmas Day celebration around the tree with a small treat, and generous donors and businesses are listed in the newspaper. The paper continues its holiday coverage later that week, stating that “the committee having the affair in charge, and the ladies have asked the Post to say that every child in Glenwood is to be remembered.” Some 600 little ones are expected to attend, including many who will travel with their families from neighboring towns.

Indeed, the children of Glenwood Springs have a fine community Christmas that year. At 4 p.m. on December 25, locals gather around the large decorated spruce on Grand Avenue under colored electric lights strung across the intersection, and wait for the program to begin. Moore’s Orchestra plays from the balcony of the Hotel Glenwood as a group of the children, led by their teachers, march to the tree and sing “Silent Night.” The Ladies Quartette performs, and the High School Girls’ and Boys’ Glee Club makes an appearance before the entire crowd joins in for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” At this point, all of the children are eager to see Santa Claus (impersonated by a Mr. W. H. Peabody), who rides in to greet them all.

The Post later reports, “our people watched the expectant faces of the children as they waited for the appearance of the good old saint of Christmastime…they saw those same faces wreathed in smiles and heard the joyous cheers of the kiddies as he approached in his auto sleigh from the direction of the North Pole.” The tree celebration quickly becomes an annual tradition and is held for many years following.

It is not until 1933 that a permanent Christmas tree is planted in Glenwood, a six-foot Colorado Blue Spruce plucked from White River National Forest and placed at the corner of 11th Street and Grand Avenue. The tree honors the memory of one of the most beloved figures of Glenwood’s old pioneer days: Mrs. Louisa Schwarz, who for decades brought special cheer to local children during the holidays. According to the Glenwood Post, “On Christmas Day, she annually held open house for the children of Glenwood, and there was not a youngster in town who did not receive a warm welcome and a sack of her famous cookies and candies.” Starting in 1950, the Schwarz tree has been decorated with lights, a lovely sight which the town maintains through the present day.

Year after year passes while new traditions, and those of days long gone, are mixed and merged. Now, in 2016, as locals settle in for another beautiful high-country holiday, we find ourselves a part of the living history of Christmastime in Glenwood Springs. We gaze at Mrs. Schwarz’s tree, we give to neighbors less fortunate, we delight in the happiness of children, we sing, and most of all—we celebrate. And that is a gift for all the ages.

Thank you to Bill Kight and Patsy Stark of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and the Frontier Museum for their assistance with article research.