There is something divine about a baby and his or her birth that brought new hope and joy to Rim Country settlers whose lives were simple and tough.
These rugged pioneers were not pious or even religious in traditional ways. But they had faith in God, to whom they often made reference, especially at Christmas. Myrtle Warter remembered how her grandfather Elwood Pyle would stand on the porch and sing hymns at the top of his lungs.
Celebrating the birth of Christ called for decorations and symbols, whether it was a tin star made from Hershey chocolate wrappers, a pinion pine brought into the house from someplace on the ranch, sacrificially purchased ornaments or a handmade Nativity scene made in school. These symbols of Christmas brought new hope and joy to work-weary ranchers and townfolk.
No one objected to bringing Christmas into the schoolroom. The teacher, Mrs. Owens (mother of Kerm Owens who, with his brother, would later establish the lumber mill in Payson), led her class in making paper chains that could be taken home to ring their family tree. They were always red and green, until one year that color of paper ran out and blue and yellow were introduced. The chains were kept by families and lengthened each year.
Pat Cline had Mrs. Owens for five straight years because the teacher followed the children through several grades. The classes would produce live Nativity scenes for the Christmas program that was held in Payson’s dance hall.
Oscar Greer remembered the years he had Mrs. Owens for a teacher and how they made Nativity scenes in school. They would then take them home and decorate them there.
Anna Mae Deming made a Christmas creche in her shop class at school. The students built the manger from old shake shingles off of sheds and barns. The baby Jesus was a rag doll; the animals and shepherds were cutouts from catalogs and pasted on cardboard. After Christmas this was taken home to their ranch in Star Valley and saved to be part of their home decorations the next year. The scene was placed, she said, on a table by the fireplace.
Mrs. Owens taught them the origin of the creche as a Christmas symbol. It was begun in 13th century Italy by a man named Francis, from the town of Assisi. He had been the spoiled playboy son of a wealthy merchant, but he became a Christian and surrendered his life to the God he met in the Christmas child.
Francis of Assisi wanted to capture the simplicity and earthiness of Jesus’ life. He felt the church had made Jesus so holy he was untouchable for common folk.
In the year 1223, in the town of Greccio, Italy, Francis built a manger scene with life-sized figures to make the story of Jesus “touchable.” The innovation spread over the Alps into France, where the French word for “cradle” is creche.
So it was that a schoolhouse in the Rim Country became the social center as well as the learning center for surrounding areas. The teachers left unforgettable memories in their students and families bonded in their common cause to build and support schools for their children.