Harmon’s Histories: Waxing nostalgic for Montana’s glorious Christmas galas

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

She wore a “most striking costume,” setting off her “magnificent figure.” They dodged about, tearing at the air.

Old Montana newspapers reveal many of the holiday stories you would expect to see today – religious ceremonies, gift exchanges, donations to the needy and Christmas Day feasts.

But then you notice something (commonplace in the past) has been lost in modern times. As far back as the 1860s in Territorial Montana, there was always a gala ball at Christmas time. 

In 1866, with “snow falling fast (and) nature (appearing) to frown upon the proposed social entertainment,” the Masons of Virginia City festooned the El Sol Billiard Hall with “branches and sprigs of Montana pine” and engaged a band to provide the “harmonious strains” for the night.

Dancing and partying lasted from 8 in the evening until 3 in the morning, in an event the local Montana Post newspaper predicted might be equaled in the future, but “not surpassed in any respect.”

Similar reports were made of the Christmas ball at the St. Charles Hotel in Boulder, where “perfect strangers (mingled) together in the festive throng,” although the music “merited no special praise.”

At times, those Post reporters had a bit of trouble meeting their deadlines amidst the celebration.

In 1867, under the headline “Unavoidable,” the newspaper apologized to its readers. “Owing to the fact that Christmas only comes once or twice a year, and other circumstances, (hic) too numerous to be attended to in a proper manner … some important items – you bet – may have escaped our attention yesterday, all of which we hope will be kindly forgiven by our readers.”

In 1875, the Rocky Mountain Husbandman reported on the grand ball given by G. A. Hampton, “the popular host of the Diamond City Hotel, on Christmas Eve,” but admitted its report, too, was limited in detail due to unfortunate circumstances involving its reporter.

The ball “we understand (was) a success in every respect. There were seventy-two gentlemen and about thirty-five ladies in attendance, all very pretty (we mean the men of course). 

“The dancing continued until broad daylight in the morning. The supper was good and plentiful. 

“At this stage of the festivities, it appears that our reporter mixed his drinks. This was an accident, however, as he usually takes his straight. The departure of our representative from his usual practice was unfortunate, as it compels us to give a much shorter report of this interesting occasion than we would wish.”

Despite the occasional overindulgence by the news scribblers of the day, Montana’s early journalists did a worthy job of documenting the holiday galas each December.

In 1878, Professor Mehden’s brass and string band provided the music for the Grand Christmas Ball in Nevada City.

In 1884, the Good Templars Hall hosted Diamond City’s Grand Ball. Tickets, including supper, were three bucks.

The Deer Lodge Polo Club held its Grand Christmas Ball at the local skating pavilion in 1885. Tickets were $2. For an extra 50 cents, supper was “served in the rink by the well-known Robert Gray, Proprietor of the Ivy Leaf Restaurant.” Dancing lasted from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m.

Missoula’s “great fancy dress masquerade ball” put on by the baseball club was the highlight of Christmas week social activities in 1891.

“One of the most striking costumes,” wrote the Missoula Weekly Gazette, “was that worn by Miss Nora McCormick. It was an imitation of the Missoula baseball club suit (complete with) knee breeches and long black stockings. It was very becoming and set off Miss McCormick’s magnificent figure to perfection.”

The gala balls were so popular back then, that social dancing clubs and dancing schools were established everywhere from Fort Benton to Missoula. 

The River Press in Fort Benton reported, “During the long winter evenings, a more pleasant way of passing time can scarcely be found.”

“Professor” Holtbuer operated his “first class dancing academy at the Realty hall” in Missoula, while “Professor” J. S. Young opened his dancing school at Owen’s Hall. Yet another “Professor,” this one named R. D. Owen, conducted the orchestra providing music for the dance lessons.

In 1880, the Helena Weekly Herald informed members of local society of a new dance that was “fairly taking the East by storm” called the “Raquet.”

Incorporating the “best parts” of the waltz and polka, “the girl clings tightly to her partner as though frightened,” when the music “starts up with a crash.” Then the pair dodges about “as though some one had thrown a blacksmith’s shop at them … scoot(ing) to one side, then dart(ing) back again … imitating the struggle for life (as though) drowning.”

The dance ends as the boy and girl “get desperate, tear the air … go mad with hydrophobia, rave and suffer the most terrible agony – and it is all over.”

The columnist concluded, “It is a short dance, as the design is amusement and not murder. But short as it is, it is said to be very exhilarating.”

I’m both exhausted and frightened at hearing that description, but then again – may I have the next dance?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.