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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

The Cowboys' Christmas Ball

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
On a snowy December evening in 1885, cowboys in plaid shirts, red bandanas, and shiny boots rode into Anson, Texas, a town of about two dozen, nestled among the mesquites in Jones County. Musicians arrived by stage from Abilene. Ranch families in their Sunday best bounced in by buckboard from Hamlin, Roby, Stamford, Albany, and Rotan. They came to dance in the dining room of the old Star Hotel. The owner of the Star, Monty Rhodes, held the event to promote his business, to bring far-flung ranch families together for Christmas, and (according to legend) to honor the marriage of a local belle, Miss Corrie, to a cowhand named Cross P Charlie.

Guitars and "frisky" fiddles played polkas, reels, and waltzes. William Wilkinson, aka "Windy Bill," called the square dances. The music set a romantic tone as bashful cowboys, their keen shyness dulled by tornado juice, sidled up to Victorian ladies in full ruffled dresses and buttoned high-topped shoes.

But the man who would define the event and bring world fame to Anson stood aloof from the crowd. William Lawrence Chittenden, a fastidiously dressed tenderfoot from the East, was a guest at the hotel. His uncle owned a ranch nearby, and Chittenden was in town to see it firsthand. He worked as a reporter for the New York Times, but his passion was cowboy poetry. The event that night in Anson moved Chittenden to translate his thoughts and feelings into classic western verse.

The room was togged out gorgeous - with mistletoe and shawls
And candles flickered frescoes around the airy walls.
The wimmin' folk looked lovely - the boys looked kinder treed
Til their leader commenced yellin': "Whoa! you fellers, let's stampede."
And the music started sighin' and a wailin' through the hall
As a kind of introduction to the cowboys' Christmas Ball.


Just as Longfellow's poem, "Paul Revere's Ride," transformed a little-known Massachusetts silversmith into an American legend, Larry Chittenden's poem, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball," immortalized the event in Anson. The Dallas Morning News published the poem on December 7, 1891, and Chittenden included it in his 1893 book Ranch Verses. The American folklorist John A. Lomax listed the poem, by then set to music, in his classic work Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

Meanwhile Chittenden inherited the ranch from his uncle but sold it after a few years and moved to New Jersey. The Star Hotel burned to the ground. In the mad rush of the twentieth century the Christmas Ball faded from memory, except in West Texas where school children learned the lines of Chittenden's poem right after the Pledge of Allegiance.

Then in the summer of 1934, the women of Anson were planning an outdoor festival to celebrate western life when word arrived from Montclair, New Jersey that Larry Chittenden had died. To honor the man who brought world fame to their town, someone got the idea to revive the Cowboy Christmas Ball and make it an annual event.

To this day Larry Chittenden's poem maintains an amazing grip on the people of West Texas, while the power of his verse, energized in recent years by recording artist Michael Martin Murphey, has made The Cowboys' Christmas Ball in Anson a West Texas folk tradition known throughout the world.



Michael Barr
"Hindsights" January 1, 2016 Column

Related Topics:
Texas Ranching
Christmas in Texas

Sources:
The Abilene Reporter News, 12-18-1938, p10, "Colorful Cowboy Christmas Ball Inaugurated 53 years Ago."
Galveston, Tribune, December 19, 1934, p11, "Anson Makes Preparation for its Annual Cowboy Christmas Ball, Originated in 1885."
Abilene Morning Reporter News, September 30, 1934, p2, "Anson Schools Monday to Pay Tribute to Memory of Larry Chittenden, Beloved Cowboys Poet of the Area."


Related Topics:
Texas Ranching
Christmas in Texas
Texas Counties
Texas Towns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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