Fayette County

Christmas 1916: fear of war, talk of prohibition and a ‘trail of blood’ in Central Kentucky

Some front pages of the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader during the Christmas holiday in 1916.
Some front pages of the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader during the Christmas holiday in 1916. Herald-Leader archives

The Christmas holiday across Lexington and Central Kentucky 100 years ago was one of hope, celebration, temperance and sorrow.

In the months leading up to the holiday, the country was on edge. War had broken out in Europe.

America and President Woodrow Wilson wanted to stay out of the conflict, and the 28th president of the United States made a last-ditch plea for peace the week before Christmas.

The front pages of Lexington’s two newspapers — the morning Herald and the afternoon Leader — chronicled Germany’s willingness to discuss peace. A short item on the front page of the Dec. 24 Herald said there was heavy betting on the Berlin exchange that peace would be signed before August. However, other war news during the holiday included the sinking of two Danish ships, the Russians losing ground in battles, and Britain successfully dropping nearly a ton of explosives on Turkish strongholds. Four months later, in April, President Wilson would call for war, and Congress would agree on April 6, 1917. What became known as World War I would end 20 months later.

Bring on the holiday cheer

Central Kentuckians found the holiday season a welcome distraction from the news of America entering World War I.

Christmas eve 1916 was on a Sunday, when virtually all businesses were closed. This prompted the Herald to proclaim in a front-page headline that “Christmas Eve is a day ahead of time,” because people filled the downtown shopping district on Saturday, Dec. 23, making their belated purchases as “prosperity smiled on every merchant in town.”

The story said, “No pre-yuletide season has ever smiled so favorably upon the merchants of Lexington, and no day’s business has ever compared with that done in the stores yesterday.”

Among the scenes in the downtown shopping district: holly and mistletoe vendors, horse peddlers of Christmas trees, “the persistent jingling of the Kris Kringle of the Kettles,” and glittering store windows. The story ended with this sentence: “The stores were jammed during the day and far into the night, and sales crews were busy converting their fast-depleting stocks into cash.”

Tragedy stalks in wake of wild Christmas Day: Trail of blood blazed across Central Kentucky as Yuletide opens

Headlines in the Dec. 26 Lexington Herald

To help with the Christmas rush, many stores hired school students. Inside the Dec. 24 Herald was a story, “24 youngsters forsake school to earn their Christmas money.” By law, children younger than 16 were not permitted to leave school for employment without permission from the board of education. The superintendent would then give them certificates allowing them to work. One student who received a certificate was quoted as saying, “Thank you very much. We know mother will be glad.”

The next day when Christmas arrived, the Herald, which sold for 5 cents, said Lexington outdid herself. A front-page story said longtime residents were proud of the way the city joined hands and took care of those less fortunate: “It’s doubtful if a single family or child lives within the limits of this city, who has not received a visit from Santa Claus.”

However, the good cheer was overshadowed by the news of the day: “Tragedy stalks in wake of wild Christmas Day: Trail of blood blazed across Central Kentucky as Yuletide opens.”

Some of the tragic events on Christmas Day 1916 in Central Kentucky included a gunfight at a school near Danville, killing one; a 7-year-old accidentally killed by his sister, who was playing with a pistol; and a train derailment that killed one person.

These events were chronicled one column away from an essay with the headline, “Memories, gifts all that remain of Christmas 1916; Cares are brushed away for majority; Poor not forgotten by more fortunate in general round of pleasure.”

In other news

But war and the Christmas holiday were not the only items making news in Lexington 100 years ago.

“America’s biggest student meeting:” The National Collegiate Prohibition Association brought its convention the following week to the Phoenix Hotel, which stood where Phoenix Park is now.

“Answering the challenge of the National Prohibition Movement” was the theme of the convention, which would attract 1,400 students from 250 colleges across the nation. They would compete in an oratorical contest and hear from speakers during the four-day gathering.

The event was described in the Dec. 24 Herald as “the greatest assembly of college men and women in the history of the country, and probably the most significant gathering related to prohibition ever held in Kentucky.”

Among the speakers were three-time U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Kentucky U.S. Sen. J. C. W. Beckham, a former governor, also planned to “talk from the shoulder” in support of Prohibition.

Four years later, Prohibition in the United States would become a constitutional amendment, banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. It lasted 13 years. Beckham later lost his re-election bid because of his pro-temperance views.

Health concerns: The Lexington health office issued a statement that streetcar ventilation “is not what it should be to safeguard the health of Lexingtonians.”

Health officials said some streetcars never had their ventilators open, and because some cars never stopped for long periods, it was impossible to air the cars. A conference was set up to determine how to better ventilate them. Streetcars started in Lexington in 1874, and service would be discontinued in the 1930s.

New rail service: It was announced that Q&C Railroad Co. would bring back service from Lexington to the coal-mining town of Helenwood, Tenn., 15 miles south of the Kentucky state line.

The service had been stopped a year earlier because of a lack of business. The story said the service would “give shoppers and businessmen in all of the towns served a train service which will enable them to reach Lexington in the morning and to do a day’s business here and return to their homes at a reasonable hour.” The train was to leave Helenwood at 5:15 a.m., returning at 8:35 p.m.