Bachelors’ Party on Bozeman Creek

Reprinted from the Montana Daily Record, Saturday, December 19, 1903 With additions by Rachel Phillips

Rachel Phillips

That Christmas of 1874, when the bachelors on Bozeman Creek were given the time of their lives, occupies a unique place among the annals of the Gallatin Valley. To begin with, it was the first Christmas celebration that part of the valley [south of Bozeman] had ever had, and in all the years that followed there was never another like it...

The settlements along the creeks and even Bozeman itself lacked many of the luxuries they have today. The homes of the settlers were rude log cabins, and the men and women who occupied them had little time to pay attention to the things that naturally go with polite society. So, when it was announced there was to be a Christmas party at Tom Ellis’ cabin, to which entrée would depend upon a ‘boiled’ shirt, there was something akin to a sensation on Bozeman Creek.

Weeks before, two pioneer women of the settlement, Mrs. James W. Mardis and Mrs. Ada Alexander, had decided to give a party Christmas Eve to the bachelors on Bozeman Creek. Mrs. Mardis had proposed the party, and Mrs. Alexander had readily consented to be one of the promoters. Perhaps it was the thoughts of other days, when she had lived as a young girl in eastern Iowa, that led Mrs. Mardis to express the wish to her friend. At any rate, while discussing the details of the party, she had exclaimed: ‘I do wish I could see a man with a white shirt once more!’ ‘Well, you can,’ said her companion. ‘We will just make that a condition of an invitation!’ And they did.

When the invitations to the Christmas party were sent around, each invitee was notified that he would be expected to wear a white shirt. The only man who protested was Bob Menefee, who up to that time had never been known to wear such a thing. ‘I’ll come, but I won’t wear a white shirt,’ he had told Mrs. Mardis, when she had spoken to him about the party. ‘Well, you won’t come unless you do,’ she’d replied. Bob Menefee was at the party, and he had on one of the hated ‘boiled’ shirts. It is related in the valley that Mr. Menefee has never since that day worn one, although white shirts are now as common in the Gallatin Valley as in any Eastern community.

And such a scurrying there was for white shirts on the part of the bachelors of Bozeman Creek! Fortunately, one of the storekeepers in Bozeman had a supply that had been tucked out of sight for some time. In those days, there was little demand for such things. Long before Christmas Eve came around, the men of the settlement were provided with shirts, and, with possibly one or two exceptions, every man also had collars and neckties!

Mrs. Mardis and Mrs. Alexander spent many days preparing for that old-time Christmas celebration. It was resolved to have a Christmas tree. When it became known about the settlement that there was to be a Christmas tree, people for miles around began to talk about it. Old as well as young began to look forward to the celebration, for they expected much of it. There were a number of poor children in the community... In that community of generous hearts, however, there was to be no distress that Christmas. The promoters of the Christmas tree [celebration] decided to bring the children to the entertainment and to treat them liberally. There would be a present for every child, plenty to eat and plenty to drink. When the bachelors heard of the plan, they were in hearty accord with it. They insisted on making up a purse for the children, and each man gave liberally. After the children had all been provided for, there still remained a considerable sum not disposed of. Then a bright idea came to the promoters of the Christmas tree [celebration].

There lived in Bozeman at that time Mrs. McKeowns... She was popular among all the people of the community, for she was a sweet old lady for whom no personal sacrifice had been too great during a long life of usefulness. In those days, furniture of the Eastern variety was decidedly rare. Not a woman on Bozeman Creek had a chair that had not been home-made... practically every piece of furniture in the rough log houses had been fashioned by the hardy pioneers themselves. Mrs. Mardis knew that a store in Bozeman possessed a little wooden rocker, and it was decided to purchase that and present it to Mrs. McKeowns. The chair cost $14.50. It was purchased and stored away to await the Christmas tree.

Long before Christmas, the two women began to work on the decorations for the tree. Most of the decorations were made by willing and clever hands, and when Mr. Mardis finally hitched up his bay team and drove to the mountains three miles away for a tree, it was certain that the one cut down by him would be as beautiful as any that would be seen by old Santa Claus that year.

As T.B. Ellis had the largest house in that part of the valley, his home was chosen for the place of the entertainment. The tree was set up there in the largest room and was then decorated. When it was completed, it was a wonder. The presents for the children were placed on the tree as fast as they were received [nineteenth century Christmas trees were often decorated with fruit, treats, and other small gifts]. That work took up a large part of the time the day before Christmas. The children of the neighborhood could scarcely await the coming of night. The weather was fine; clear, cold and altogether typical of the season. At length, Old Baldy began to cast his shadows over the Bridger Trail, and the sun, red and clear, sank slowly behind the Madison Range across the valley. The stars came out, and then it was time for the Christmas tree [celebration] at the Ellis cabin.

Ben F. Bisel, one of the prominent men of Bozeman, carried his violin. There were other musicians among the guests, and there was no end of music that night. Bob Menefee was among the first to reach the Ellis cabin. He had on his white shirt. The other guests came trooping in, and among them were all the children of the neighborhood. Among the bachelor guests that evening were many who still remain prominent residents of the Gallatin Valley. Most of them ceased to be bachelors long ago. One who yet remains a single man is Mr. Menefee.

After all the guests had arrived, there was music by the orchestra, and then the presents were distributed. Everyone got something. The children were more than delighted. Some of the presents distributed that evening were rich and costly. There were gold nuggets and gold chains and rings among the gifts of the more favored ones. Old and young were happy. Even the bachelors were not forgotten. Indeed, this was one of the big surprises of the evening.

After the promoters of the Christmas tree [celebration] had made all their purchases, they still had some money left, and with it they bought each bachelor a present – two presents, in fact. Each bachelor that evening received from the ladies a handkerchief and a little black tie. Each combination present had cost $1.75. Finery came high those days in the Gallatin Valley. Those bachelors were immensely pleased. Some went so far as to declare they had a better time than the children for whom the tree had been planned.

When every person, except one, had received a present, and the tree had been stripped of everything but its decorations, someone who had been duly appointed to that office stepped up and dragged from behind the evergreen the little ‘store’ rocking chair, which he presented in a neat speech to Mrs. McKeowns. The dear old lady could scarcely believe her eyes. She had not had a rocking chair since she had crossed the plains years before. Seating herself in the chair, she seemed not to know whether to laugh or to cry. Then she saw her friend, Mr. Bisel, at one end of the room. ‘Oh, Ben!’ she shouted, ‘play “Yankee Doodle.”’ The musicians struck up the old tune. The bachelors and all the others began to sing, and the old lady began to rock. There were to be no tears in the Ellis cabin that evening.”

There have been many changes since that Christmas Eve twenty-nine years ago. Some of the men and women present at that celebration are no longer living. The pioneer who cut down the Christmas tree lies buried on the hill east of Bozeman. Some of those present at the entertainment long since disappeared from the sight and knowledge of their Gallatin Valley friends. Mrs. Mardis is still a prominent resident of Bozeman. The other promoter of the party became, many years ago, the wife of T.B. Ellis, one of the bachelors among the guests that evening. There have been many changes, and yet there remain not a few persons still in sight of the Bridger Mountains who attended that Christmas tree of long ago, the first and most notable Christmas entertainment ever given on Bozeman Creek.”

Harriet Adelaide Noe Mardis
Harriet Adelaide Noe Mardis was born in Morrow County, Ohio on February 15, 1845. Harriet and her husband James W. Mardis came to Montana in 1864 via the Bridger Trail. After a short time spent in Virginia City, the Mardis family moved to the Gallatin Valley and eventually settled on a ranch south of Bozeman in the vicinity of where Goldenstein Lane is located today. James Mardis passed away in 1901, and Harriet continued to run the ranch. Harriet passed away May 28, 1931, and is buried in Bozeman.

Adrianna Burns Alexander Ellis
Adrianna Burns Alexander Ellis was born September 3, 1846. Ada married Samuel Alexander in 1864 in Missouri. They divorced in early 1880. Ada Alexander and Thomas B. Ellis were married at St. James Episcopal Church in Bozeman on July 11, 1880. She passed away in California in 1942.

Robert P. Menefee
Born in Missouri in 1833, Robert P. Menefee spent some time in Salt Lake City before arriving in Montana in the early 1860s. Menefee served as postmaster in both Virginia City and Bozeman. He helped operate a farm south of Bozeman for many years and was secretary of Bozeman’s Masonic Gallatin Lodge No. 6 for forty years. According to his obituary in the Butte Miner, July 19, 1906, “He never married, and always lived alone, and, while an eccentric character in many ways, was always considered one of Gallatin’s best citizens, and one of its most prominent old-timers.”

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