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Quintessential Barrington

19th Century Style

The Octagon House at Christmas


story by Barbara L. Benson

Barrington, Dec. 19, 1889: Merry Christmas. Dear little Nightingale. You are not forgotten this Christ time if you have chosen a mate and flown from the home nest. Hattie says it will not seem like Christmas without Laura here.

So wrote Emaline Hawley Brown from the Octagon House to her eldest daughter Laura, newly married to Joseph Nightingale and living in Fairmont, Minn. In the hundreds of letters written in the ensuing years by Emaline and her youngest daughter Hattie to Laura, descriptions of Christmas food, activities, and presents assume a seasonal importance.

Barrington, Dec. 18, 1892: Dear Laura, Enclosed you will find a draft for five dollars, which is a Christmas Present to you from your Pa and Ma, you can get you a little bureau or what you think best with it. We also send a small package, the silk piece work is a present to you from Hattie, and the little dress and watch is Arthur’s present from grandpa and grandma, the watch is a stem winder, by turning the stem the hands will turn and it will strike one every turn. For years, the Nightingales apparently did not return home for Christmas, and letters united the two families. On Christmas Day 1895, Emaline sent three pages to Laura that included the following: Hattie gave me blue and white calico for a wrapper, she will make it for me. August gave me a very pretty vase, he gave all his customers one, said he bought 300.

This was August W. Meyer, Barrington’s foremost general merchant, whose store stood then at the northeast corner of Hough and Main. The letters often refer to Meyer giving his customers Christmas gifts.

On December 22, 1892, Hattie started a nine-page letter to her sister that mentioned the activities of the various religious denominations in the community: Last night the Methodists had a supper and a box of clothes, toys etc. to send to the Children’s Home in Chicago. They send the box but eat the supper. The Baptist S.S. had “Santa Claus and his Home” and the Germans had a tree.

Emaline and Hattie’s letters in 1897 and 1898 were full of domestic and community news, but Christmas was always important:

Barrington, Dec. 26, 1897: Dear Laura, I hope you had as nice Christmas weather as we did and as nice a time. Ren brought Hattie and Howard up here the day before Christmas, and they stayed all night, and Ren came up to dinner Christmas. We had roast duck, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, doughnuts, sweet crackers and angel cake, peach sauce, and apples as large as your fists. Not a very elaborate meal but we all enjoyed it.

The rest of the four-page letter detailed their Christmas presents, and also the considerable contents of a “care” package to a cousin in South Dakota who was experiencing difficult times. The sources of the Brown’s income are never clear, but their generous and caring hearts for family and friends permeate the letters, especially at the Christmas season.

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Barbara L. Benson grew up in Kent, England, and later moved to New York. She settled in Barrington and has walked with our history ever since she first arrived here in 1980.