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Remembering the Christmas tree swamp

Getting a Christmas tree was always a special time. But we didn’t go to a Christmas tree farm where there were rows upon rows of perfectly groomed Christmas trees, steaming hot chocolate to keep one warm, ample chotskies to purchase, or perfect family photo opportunities.

Instead, we donned snow shoes, suited up in layers of clothing, grabbed the sled, and went deep into the woods of my parents’ 400-acre farm, where we headed toward “Christmas tree swamp,” as my Dad referred to it.

What was special for me as a farm kid in the 1960s wasn’t finding the perfect tree, but rather the journey of getting there.

It was a time that I would have alone with my Dad, walking the mile-long trek through a sometimes dense forest back to the swamp, trudging on ill-fitting wooden snow shoes past every coniferous and deciduous tree that Wisconsin offers.

Each smelling different, and offering its own special beauty.

The snow would be pure, glinting in the sunshine, with shadows from the trees casting various shapes and definition to the powdery mounds.

We’d rustle up an occasional deer, and hear the sound of a pileated woodpecker hammering on a tree, or a cardinal singing.

And my Dad would point out every bird, every glistening snow form, and would name every single tree, and then quiz me about all of them on the journey back home.

It was pure magic. Dad was a farmer, former Marine, and not much of a talker. He spent most of his time just getting all of the tasks done that were required to run a family farm.

But these trips to the swamp, looking for the perfect tree, were always times of education and instilling intellectual curiosity on his daughter. They were times away from work, worries and chores.

Instead, they were times where daily tasks were at bay, and all that was before us was the beauty of nature, the quest for the perfect tree, and a time of bonding between father and daughter.

When we did arrive at the swamp, we would carefully survey the trees, walking around each that seemed viable, and Dad would ask my advice about which tree might work best.

Because these trees weren’t groomed, we would have to cut down a 20-foot tree, and take just the top several feet, because that was the best part of the tree.

Dad never picked the tree I suggested, because after all, what does a 6-year-old really know about picking out a tree — especially one that loomed so high above? However, I felt validated and proud that he would ask.

Once the tree was downed, we would tie it to the sled and begin the journey back to the farm, where the tree would end up in the drawing room of the farmhouse.

It would invariably have a big hole to fill, where extra branches would need to be tied in, and we’d put the lacking area in the corner, with the best side facing outward. Decorations would begin, and mounds of tinsel in strategic places would play an integral role in turning it into the perfect Christmas tree.

Dad is now approaching 94 and has been afflicted with dementia. He is living in the past more, and we never know which memory might surface, or which has receded to the point of no return.

I recently asked if he remembered how we used to get our Christmas trees when I was a kid, and he thought for a bit, digging deep, and he smiled whimsically and said, “of course, we got them from Christmas tree swamp.”

I hope he understands what an impactful and special time that going to the swamp was for his daughter.

While his memory has faded, the intellectual curiosity that he’s passed on will be a legacy that endures, as will the memories of the perfect trees we pulled from the Christmas tree swamp.

Conjuring a Christmas ghost

On a Christmas morning much like this, 117 years ago, the children of Eau Claire ran wide-eyed and full of wonder to their Christmas trees, anxious to see Santa’s gifts. For most children, Santa had outdone himself, leaving in his merry wake a smorgasbord of candy and nuts and oranges. And the toys! Oh, the toys! From the rocking horses festooned with silver bows, to the dollies fast asleep in their cribs.

Yet the greatest gift was confirmation of Santa’s existence, which had recently been called into question by a pair of local boys, John Doves and Eugene Cheney, both of whom had penned letters to the local newspaper claiming that a recent Santa sighting was none other than Frank Skinner of Whipple Street.

The accusation sent shockwaves throughout Eau Claire.

Or maybe not. I suppose we’ll never know.

But maybe more so than usual, Santa was on the mind of every child that year, as well as the city’s newspaper editor.

Who can know the editor’s true motive for what happened next? Boredom, perhaps? Or a chance to sell a few more papers? In my preferred version, the editor was trying to counteract the damage wrought by Frank Skinner’s unsanctioned Santa impersonation. The children of Eau Claire were in need of a little extra cheer that year, and the newspaper was the thing that might give it to them.

Taking matters into his own hands, on December 22, 1903, the editor of the Eau Claire Daily Telegram published an above-the-fold article titled, “Santa Talked: Telegram Reporter Sends Word.” The first-person account — allegedly written by one “William Christmasville” — recounts the Eau Claire journalist’s journey to the North Pole for a sit down with Santa.

Reaching for his press pass, Christmasville began his journey north, eventually arriving at Santa’s private office, where the reporter glanced 200 letters from Eau Claire’s children piled high atop the desk. Upon questioning Santa on the quality of those letters, Santa replied that he was quite pleased.

“In fact,” Santa added, “(Eau Claire children) can write better than those of any other city in the world. They must have good teachers.”

Next, Christmasville pressed Santa on a range of issues. When will you arrive in Eau Claire? (Christmas Eve). Yes, but what time? (No comment). How will you distinguish the children?

Santa paused, considered it, and then — much to the editor’s enthusiasm back home — put in a plug for the paper, assuring the Telegram’s readers that he was a regular subscriber and had “saved the Telegram’s art section containing the pictures of pupils in the different schools.”

Christmasville’s interview ended on a somber note, with Santa conceding that not every Eau Claire child would receive a visit from him.

Regrettably, seven local youngsters had made his naughty list; their infractions ranging from failing to complete their schoolwork, to being cross with their mothers.

Always the optimist, Santa “refused to give the names of these children,” Christmasville reported, “because he said they might be better by Christmas.”

Christmasville’s dispatch was published between a story of a train wreck in Kansas City that left nine people dead, and a murderer who was brought to justice in New York. Admittedly, it was a nice change of pace.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the Telegram continued its double coverage. Between the advertisements and the hard-hitting news, the paper published dozens of local letters to Santa. Which is how we now know that Bertha Hempleman wanted a new sled and leggings that year, while Hazel Cheney asked for a piece of calico for her doll’s dress. Cora Derouin asked for a set of dishes; Kate Brown, a handkerchief box; Arnold Hatch, a steam-powered train; Muriel Daley, a pompadour comb; and George Fletcher (who may have made the naughty list) demanded a gun and a whip.

While there’s no way of knowing how Santa fared on the specifics of gift-giving, we do know he made good on his promise to arrive in Eau Claire on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas day edition of the paper confirmed it, noting that Santa was spotted the previous night at First Baptist Church on Fourth Avenue, where he made a “liberal distribution of gifts.” Meanwhile, at Lake Street Methodist, congregants enjoyed organ music, the children’s choir, and, yes, their very own Santa appearance. Not far away at First Congregational, Reverend Dr. Frizzell — who perhaps could not land the big man on such a busy night — entertained a packed house with stories from Ben Hur, complete with 100 accompanying illustrations.

Christmas, it seemed, had been saved.

But just for good measure, in his Christmas day edition, the editor offered one last pitch on behalf of the holiday. The editor began by acknowledging that though many locals “whose heads are bigger than their hearts” scoff at the “foolish work in preparation for the holidays,” there is, indeed, “something vital in the custom.” It is “deep rooted in our foolish hearts,” he wrote, and “it means something real ... the outward expression of a genuine inward warmth of feeling.”

“So let us go on giving to our friends — giving to our enemies, even, if we can be such good Christians. If we have nothing else to give,” the editor closed, “we can give them the greeting of Merry Christmas!”

Just like that, Christmas 1903 came to a close. Fading alongside it was “William Christmasville,” whose byline never again graced the paper’s pages.

No matter — for the “intrepid reporter” had served his intended purpose, just as the editor had hoped.

Together, in the darkest days of the year, they helped their city believe.

Pandemic pivot: School leaders add contact tracing to their agenda

EAU CLAIRE — As cases of COVID-19 surged in Eau Claire County this fall and the Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s contact tracing staff was overwhelmed, the Eau Claire school district began doing their own contact tracing, as well as helping families find tests for their students.

The district has created two temporary positions — dubbed COVID navigators — to help local families and students arrange coronavirus tests and answer questions about the virus.

The district also initially thought it may have to hire new personnel to take over contact tracing. Instead, so far, principals and assistant principals have been able to handle the duty of interviewing students and staff who test positive, then mapping and contacting their close contacts, said Kaying Xiong, executive director of student services.

“We were watching that, to see if it became a problem for the buildings, but what we’re finding out is our folks have really unfortunately gotten very good at this,” Xiong said. “The middle of November was when cases surged in the community, which means cases surged in our buildings. That was a high point for all our folks regarding the work they had to do, but they did a really good job with this.”

In November, cases of COVID-19 peaked in the county. It was posting 200-plus new cases per day, and county-level contact tracers were overwhelmed. At points in October, November and December, contact tracers have had so many cases they haven’t been able to call close contacts to notify them of possible exposures, county health officials said.

Contact tracing can be time-consuming, and it can’t always be done during normal business hours, said Mike Pernsteiner, associate principal overseeing athletics at North High School.

“Some situations take longer than others, if there are multiple students involved, for example,” Pernsteiner said in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “As all of us in the community have gotten more knowledgeable of testing, quarantining and other protocols, it has gotten easier. People tend to already be aware of what next steps they need to take after a positive COVID test result or having been a close contact.”

Through a grant from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and CARES Act funding, the school district also hired two part-time COVID navigators in October, Xiong said.

“When school first started, we didn’t have the National Guard (testing) sites yet,” she said. “Scheduling a test was a more complicated process. We had a lot of families with COVID-like symptoms.”

The COVID navigators aimed at helping students find tests faster, so contact tracers could map the virus more quickly if the students tested positive.

They’ve also answered COVID-related questions, occasionally provided transportation if students needed it and sometimes even delivered school materials to students who had to suddenly quarantine.

The two positions are funded through the end of March.

Xiong said she’s pleased with the district’s approach to contact tracing so far, noting that the district hasn’t seen school-by-school outbreaks, or even a case where a child or teacher tested positive and others in the same classroom or building were diagnosed with the virus in the same timeframe.

“We want to keep schools open to in-person learning, and as a result of that we’re trying to do as much as we can to quickly isolate positive cases and help families with testing,” Xiong said.

Pernsteiner agreed, saying the district’s hybrid model and keeping space between students has helped: “It has been rare that students or staff have been considered close contacts within the school day.”