Christmas in the Cabin
As their horse-drawn wagon veers around a bend in the road, the time travelers welcome the site of a small log cabin lit by kerosene lamps. In his pioneer attire, Pa opens the door and steps out on the porch to invite the shivering visitors inside where the family is preparing for Christmas. As Ma pulls a pan of hot cookies from the oven in the black, wood burning stove, the children string popcorn to decorate the spindly tree Pa chopped down and placed in the corner of their meager home. This is Christmas in the Cabin, a living history event at the Heritage Center in Abilene on the first Sunday in December.
Designed to educate visitors about the culture of the pioneers that settled Kansas in the 1800s, Christmas in the Cabin provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to interact with a typical frontier family as it celebrates the holidays and tells about life on the prairie in a historic setting. The Heritage Center’s authentic log cabin was built near Lyona in 1857 by Martin and Dorthea Volkmann who came to Dickinson County, Kan. from their native Prussia.
Visitors stepping back in time to the pioneer days will notice the only heat for the one room cabin is the wood-burning stove, which Ma uses to bake the cookies she serves her guests. The children whisper wishes for a store-bought doll or ball on Christmas morning as they place their strings of popcorn and other homemade ornaments on the barely-three-foot-tall tree.
“Christmas in the Cabin started as a way to show how pioneers celebrated Christmas and, in particular, how German families celebrated because of the Volkmann family being German,” says Jeff Sheets, director of the Dickinson County Historical Society. Over the years, however, other nationalities such as Swedish have been the focus of the event.
Wanda Pitney of Abilene has attended several Christmas in the Cabin events with her two children. “We try to make it every year,” Pitney says. “Part of the reason we go is the atmosphere, the simplicity of those times as opposed to the hustle and bustle we’re all involved in today during the holidays. It really shows the kids what it was like back then when an activity like stringing popcorn was a big deal and everybody in the family participated in preparing for Christmas.”
Wandering outside the cabin, visitors view the pioneer family’s outhouse and chicken coop before entering the large red barn, built in 1915, where they find early-day farm equipment. And then, it’s off to town.
“You get to have hot chocolate with peppermint sticks at the general store,” Pitney says of the nearby Burklund Store displaying merchandise from earlier days. “And you get to ride the carousel. It’s a great place to create family memories.” The carousel, a National Historic Landmark, was built by the C.W. Parker Amusement Company in Abilene at the turn-of-the-century and features hand-carved wooden horses that sway forward and back rather than the typical up and down of present-day merry-go-rounds. Christmas music plays on the carousel’s restored band organ.
Inside the Heritage Center, Thad Beach leads Christmas carols and allows children to play on unique instruments, some of them homemade, such as a washboard and a five gallon bucket with a handle and string.
“Christmas in the Cabin also is our open house,” Sheets says, adding there is no charge for the event or any of the activities. “We let families come in and see what we have to offer.”
The Heritage Center’s historical museum features such frontier items as a mounted buffalo head and a mounted set of longhorns, Wild Bill Hickok’s guns, and the essentials used by a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail, which ended in Abilene thus making the city the first wild west cowtown. Housed in the same building is the Museum of Independent Telephony that tells the story of early independent telephone companies including the Brown Telephone Company, established in 1899 in Abilene. Displays reveal the evolution of the telephone and hands-on exhibits include an operator’s switchboard.