This is a true story told to me by my mother, who was born in the little Mormon town of Cowley in northern Wyoming.
The Big Horn Basin was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's last colonizing effort in 1900, and Cowley was a typical Mormon settlement. Each man "selected" his town lot by drawing a slip of paper out of a hat. The bishop was rather like an acting mayor, and the Relief Society president helped deliver the babies. Most of those early pioneers were from Utah where they had left prospering farms.
They found their new home to be a dry and barren land.
One early settler who arrived there as a young boy remembered his first glimpse of the area. "The first time I saw where Cowley was later (to be) settled, I was riding with my father on a wagon . . . As we crossed the Cowley flat, there was not a cabin, a tree, a fence post, a ditch, not a drop of water in sight. The vegetation consisted of a sparse growth of salt sage. There was no grass. It was too dry for grass to grow." (Mark N. Partridge, "With Book and Plow," 1967.)
My mother was born in Cowley in 1908, the youngest of five children. Her parents were converts to the LDS Church, he from Germany and she from Brighton, England. They met and married in Salt Lake City. He was a "city" boy from Frankfurt and knew nothing about pioneering, but when the call came to go, Henry Herget and Annie Ashdown went — he in a horse and wagon company and she, because she was expecting their first child, following a few months later by train to Bridger, Mont., and the rest of the way by horse and wagon.
Their child, born in December of 1900, was the first child born in the little settlement. They were still living in a tent at that time but were able to borrow the Willis log cabin for the event. But even within the shelter of a log cabin that northern Wyoming winter, my grandmother recalled that "in the morning there was ice on the sheets where our breath fell."
Henry did as well as he could with his 30-acre farm, but he wasn't a very expert farmer. He soon found that for him and his little family to survive (they eventually had five children, three of them dying in childhood) he needed to do something else. He took a job as bookkeeper with the Continental Oil Co. in the town of Glenrock, about 200 miles from Cowley. He would farm from spring until the harvest and then spend the winter in Glenrock — coming home only for Christmas.
One year, it must have been about 1916, Henry was again preparing to come home by train for Christmas. He was German, and Christmas was important to him. That year he had very little to bring home to his children in the way of gifts. Christmas in Cowley in those early years was usually quite meager. His children had never seen a Christmas tree.
My mother remembers how excited they were at home at the expected arrival of her father. On the appointed day she, her mother and brother trekked through the snow down to the little wooden train depot to meet him. The train arrived, but he wasn't on it. There was nothing else to do but slog back through the snow to their home and wait. My mother recalled waiting by the frost-covered window the rest of that day and into the night until her mother made her go to bed. He didn't come during the long December night and the next morning my mother took up her post by the window — blowing on the glass and scraping the frost away so she could see out. They waited all that day; she knew how worried her mother was.
At the end of the second day, as they were preparing to have supper before going to bed, through the window they saw his figure coming through the snow. They flew to meet him — my mother said that he was covered with icicles, icicles hanging from his hair and from his beard — and over his shoulder he had a Christmas tree!
As he left Glenrock the day before, he took an ax. As the train wound through the Bighorn Mountains on the way to Cowley, he talked the conductor into stopping the train to let him off. (The conductor must have though he was crazy.) The train left him behind in the woods. He found a small evergreen, cut it down, put it over his shoulder and started to walk. He walked through the night and most of the next day to his little log house, carrying that tree. My mother remembered how wonderful and strange it seemed to have a tree in their small log home and how good it smelled. I have no idea what they used to trim it, but in the little settlement of Cowley that year, Henry Herget's children had a real live Christmas tree.
Henry Herget lived to be ninety-seven years old. He and Annie Ashdown lived with us while I was growing up in Portland, Ore. Every year on Christmas Eve there was a special moment when the bustle and merriment of the festive night would pause. Henry would stand by the piano (my mother would play) and he would sing "O Tannenbaum" (O Christmas Tree) in German; all the verses. He would put his shoulders back, clear his throat and even the littlest children seemed to sense the solemnity of the occasion.
The tradition continues even now. We have a son-in-law who speaks German. Each Christmas night at our house, when we are all gathered at the end of the day, he stands by the piano (my daughter plays) and he sings "O Tannenbaum" in German; all the verses. And once again, even the little children seem to sense it is a sacred solemn occasion.
We all think back to that long walk, on a snowy winter night in northern Wyoming, a long time ago.
After years of prodding by her daughter, Diane West, or Sue as she is known to family and friends, finally penned the Christmas story of her grandfather, Henry Herget. She decided she would share it with Deseret News readers as part of the annual "Christmas I Remember Best" contest, the first time she has entered.
"I kept telling my daughter I didn't have time, so it's terrific that I won," she said.
West said she first told the story to a gathering of LDS missionaries while her husband was serving as a mission president.
Originally from Lovell, Wyo., near where the story takes place, West lived in Oregon, California and Connecticut before settling in Salt Lake City. She and her husband Hugh, are the parents of seven children and have 24 grandchildren.
Winning entries in this year's contest will run daily through Christmas.