Let’s Talk Clovis: 1870 & 1880 Christmas at Academy

Pictured in this 1888 photo are the 10 Cole women who married men from pioneer families. Left to right (standing): Emma Heiskell, 18; Kate Shafer, 22; Mary Stroud, 30; Sallie Sample, 34; and Ida Bell, 24. Left to right (seated): Grace Hogue, 20; Alice Hoskins, 32; Harriet Blasingame, 16; Jane Estill, 26; and Angelina Birkhead, 28. CONTRIBUTED BY CLOVIS MUSEUM

We share two Academy Christmas stories as remembered by sisters Jane Cole Estill, Harriet Cole Blasingame and Emma Cole Heiskell. Their parents, William T. Cole and Jane Cole, arrived at Academy in 1869. The family grew to 10 daughters. All 10 married men from pioneer families.

Mrs. Jane Cole Estill was a pupil in the first school house at Academy. The building was located on Dry Creek about three-quarters of a mile from the present site of Academy.

Estill said the following about the school site:

“It was an old up-and-down board building with one door, three windows and a little stage. There were two large desks (one on either side of the door) and the kids sat on benches.

There were about 40 pupils and Lizzie Ellis is believed to have been the first teacher. Her father was the famous Dr. Ellis, the superintendent of schools in Fresno County. He also acted in the capacity of preacher.

In Christmas of 1880, the weather God failed to smile. A storm was brewing but people came from far and near to see “Young Amazon,” a real opera play by the pupils with Jane Cole as the leading lady. Jim Thompson was leading man. Ida Cole recited and sang.

Rev. Brother Hopkins came all the way from Fresno, bringing his brown mare known as “Old Dolly.” The animal was very thin and shaky.

During the exercises, a great rain storm came up and in a very short time the creeks were out of their banks. It was finally decided all should remain at the schoolhouse that night, but there was one new drifting family present by the name of Thomas.

At midnight, the Thomas kids got sleepy, so did ma and pa. Against the advice of all, the parents started out in their wagon pulled by a roan horse and a bay mule. About 75 yards from the school, the wagon turned over in the flood waters of Dry Creek and bedlam reigned as the crowd rushed out into the storm and the cowboys got aboard their horses with lariats and tried to right the wagon.

Finally Tom Wyatt dragged Mrs. Thomas from the wagon and asked if anyone was hurt and she said she was. Then, her little daughter Lucy yelled and said she was hurt also. In spite of Tom, Mrs. Thomas climbed astride his horse and in back of him rode to shore.

Tom never heard the last of it and Mrs. Thomas lost her reputation as a modest lady—such was horror at the time, of a woman riding astride.”  

Estill shares her family’s 1870 Academy Christmas experience:

“We had a Christmas tree in 1870 but no lights. You see folks did not go places at night in this part of the country as we lived too far apart. The building was lighted by a few smoky candles as people were still afraid of coal oil. There was a Santa Claus and he nearly scared the little kids into fits.

We thought that the presents were the grandest things that we had ever seen. They consisted mostly of china head dolls, jumping jacks, Sambo and Daisy toys and I received a beaded purse. To me, it was the grandest purse that was ever made and I felt just like I was in heaven seeing so many pretty things all at one time and a real Santa Claus, too.

Brother Neal, South Methodist preacher and circuit rider, was present at the gathering and the entertainment consisted of songs and recitations. The weather was lovely and we all reached our home at a late hour.”

These pioneer families shared their joy of Christmas at Academy. They are a part of our rich heritage.

Peg Bos
Peg Bos is the president of the Clovis Museum on 4th and Pollasky avenues in Old Town Clovis. She not only manages the museum but she also writes her Let's Talk Clovis column in our publication which features and highlight the amazing history of our city and culture. One fun fact about Peg Bos, she was the first female mayor of Clovis from 1984-86.