Pioneers greeted Christmas by dancing

Country folk love to dance. Maybe not ballroom dancing, but good old fashioned square dancing, folk dancing, etc., with a violin, accordion, and caller. They have been around for a long time. Maybe a little line dancing every now and then. Dancing is part of the human make-up, some of us being much better than others. Raise your hand where you are.

In the southern Nevada mining community of Bunkerville, old Nevada, Christmas 1877 was approaching. Bunkerville had been settled by Mormon pioneers under the leadership of Edward Bunker. Bunker, courtesy of Brigham Young, had moved his large polygamous family to the area earlier in the year.

It had been a difficult year for almost everyone. Various historians note that the settlers “had no time for fun or entertainment in the face of a serious effort for pure survival.” However, the fall harvest had been good and it was decided that a Christmas dance would be a good way to celebrate.

The 23 people who lived in Bunkerville, not counting infants and toddlers, had built a community dining hall made of rough hewn planks, as well as six houses with adobe walls and covered in mud and tule leaves. For the announced Christmas party, a dance pavilion was built, adjoining the community dining room. Rough pine wood planks made up the floor, and two of the walls were made of sheets of canvas. A wall was the side of the dining room. One side was left open, but a large bonfire was built for heat and light. There were a few coarse kerosene lamps for additional lighting.

Ithaner Sprague was an accomplished musician with his accordion and he provided the music. It doesn’t say much if someone had a violin or a guitar. Settlers from other neighboring areas came, because the invitation was open. They came on horseback, in cart, some even on foot.

No entry was charged as there was little money available anyway so people paid what they could. Some brought potatoes. Pumpkins, squash or other types of products. One family brought a gallon or two of milk, and another paid with radishes and onions. Everything was piled up near the musicians’ stand.

There was no babysitting service, so those with babies would simply put them in a long box with the others, covered with warm blankets behind where Sprague and his accordion sat. It is not reported if any of the children have fussed or cried.

The large tables were heavily laden with heaps of refreshments for the dancers, who tricked and dabbed their enormous work boots on the rough wooden planks. One historian noted that “everyone was dancing with such enthusiasm, the first they had enjoyed in over a year, that every few minutes the floor was cleaned so that the rough pine chips could be swept away.” .

The dancing and the festivities continued through the night. Then the tired people and their sleeping children sorted their coats and headed for their houses among the sagebrush, still on horseback, wagon or on foot.

The people of Bunkerville, so named by Brigham Young, established a new community effort, sharing the labor and fruits of their labor, with all land held in common. The communal experiment ended in 1880.

(Adapted from a story by Harold’s Club, 1951, and other miscellaneous authors.)

Dave Maxwell is a Nevada journalist with over 35 years of print and broadcast media experience, and has a keen interest in early Nevada history. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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