Christmas Often a Joyful, Eventful Time in Canby’s History

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Over the years, the Christmas holiday season has held a special place in the hearts of many a Canby resident.

Celebrations of the annual winter holiday date back to Canby’s earliest days. In 1873, just three years after the town was given the name “Canby,” The Oregonian recorded a rendition of the “Willamette’s ball,” an annual soiree that was held here.

“Many responded to invitations extended, and the comfortable room was, as usual, crowded,” the newspaper reported of the event. “It is needless to say that affairs were conducted in excellent style, and the music was very fine. All spent a pleasant evening, that may be safely said.”

Of course, Christmas holds special significance to the Christian faith community, which has long represented a sizable portion of Canby’s citizenry. In the early days, many German-speaking Christians called Canby home, and the Canby Evangelical Church of North America had many such worshipers.

For years, the group met and worshiped in the homes of fellow members, but in 1894, they built their first church, which still stands today at 339 South Township Road. The church was dedicated on Christmas Eve of that year, under the direction of its first pastor, the Reverand Herman Schuknecht.

German was the spoken language in the church until 1912.

In 1907, tragedy struck a prominent local family during the holiday season, as well-known Canby citizen James Phegley went missing under mysterious circumstances.

On December 17, Phegley, an agent of the Russelville Nursery Company, drove from Canby to Butteville, St. Paul and, finally, Woodburn on business, staying overnight in Champoeg. The following day, he was expected to return home to Canby, but he did not.

In fact, he was never heard from again.

“His disappearance 10 days ago has aroused much speculation as to his probable fate,” The Oregonian reported on December 28, 1907, “and it is feared that he has met with foul play.”

“Mr. Phegley drove a black horse with a white stripe on the forehead, and had a top buggy,” newspapers noted. “The only theory that seems plausible is the one that Mr. Phegley was held up a few miles from Champoeg, before it was quite light, murdered and his body placed in the bushes along the road and his conveyance driven away.”

Phegley’s son, Grant, was a prominent businessman (and later, politician) in Portland, who managed Columbia Woolen Mills. After receiving the distressing news of his father’s disappearance on Christmas Day, he spent three days scouring the boggy underbrush on both sides of the 12-mile road between Canby and Champoeg — to no avail.

“Mr. Phegley was 62 years of age, and resided with his daughter, Mrs. John Rydman, at Canby,” The Oregonian said. “He was in his usual cheerful spirits and the idea that he is a suicide is not entertained by his fam­ily. The authorities throughout the valley have been requested to look out for the supposed murderers with the stolen horse and buggy.”

Throughout the 20th century, the Christmas tree industry began to take root in Oregon, and Canby farms were part of the early boom. In 1918, the city’s farms harvested and an estimated 40,000 firs and distributed them all around the world.

In 1924, a snowstorm dumped several inches of white powder on Canby just in time for Christmas, and though the youngsters enjoyed the chance to build snowmen and indulge in other frivolities, the storm caused the city no small amount of trouble.

“With three or four inches of snow and slush covering the ground here, and no lights or water, Canby was in a plight as a result of the storm which started at 7:30 this morning,” The Oregonian said. “Snow fell most of the day. Electric lights and telephone wires were damaged. The water supply ran out early tonight. Several accidents were reported on the highway during the day.”

Three years later, an airmail plane piloted by N.B. Evans was wrecked near the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby shortly before Christmas. Don’t worry — there’s no evidence to suggest the plane struck an airborne sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer.

Instead, the pilot reported that his engine had gone dead as he passed over Canby at an altitude of about 1,200 feet. Evans initially attempted to land on the fairgrounds’ fine racetrack, but couldn’t make an approach due to electrical wires.

After landing in a nearby field, the pilot — who was uninjured — began promptly disassembling the aircraft so it could be transported back to Portland for service. Only the landing gear and left wing were damaged in the unplanned landing.

Scandal rattled through Canby in 1929, as a series of “disgraceful episodes” were reported on the city’s streets on December 25.

“It is alleged that one young man of Canby was found in a drunken sleep early Christmas morning and was taken home by a friend in a car,” the Canby Herald reported the following day. “Other young men, or boys, are said to have been drunk on the street Tuesday evening, but no arrests were made.”

Gambling was also allegedly witnessed on the Christian holiday — a vice that had been the scourge of many upstanding citizens that winter, according to the Herald.

“Much indignation has been aroused as a result of the alleged outrages uncovered Christmas Eve,” the newspaper reported, “and Night Officer Bowlsby, who is looked to for the preservation of peace and dignity, was the subject of more or less censure.”

According to the paper, several prominent citizens had gathered at the post office on the day after Christmas to demand something be done.

“Unless adequate means of protection against such infringement upon the peace and dignity of the community is given, it was pointed out, there will be justification in enlisting the aid of state authorities to clean up the town,” the Herald said. “From what can be learned by current reports, there seems to be no doubt but that some of these requests are justified.”

The week of Christmas in 1988, six migrant families from Mexico facing eviction from a Canby church found themselves in new, warm surroundings — and on the receiving end of food, toys and clothing donated by community residents.

The families — consisting of 43 people — had moved into the Iglecia del Dios Vivo on Juniper Street earlier that month after their work terms had been completed, and they had nowhere else to go. But the presence of that many people in the aging building represented a safety concern, and the city had informed them they would have to find new lodgings.

Enter the Canby Grove Christian Conference Center, which put up all 43 souls in comfortable cabins on their property. Other generous Canbyites flooded the center with donations after hearing about the migrants’ plight.

When the bus showed up to transport the workers and their meager belongings to their new temporary living quarters, “the families began singing religious songs,” The Oregonian reported. “Many parents held hands with their sleepy children and carried babies in their arms.”

Finally, one last tale from Canby’s Christmas history: In 2001, library patron Felicia Sheeran checked out a video that contained an animated version of the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, along with several other holiday cartoons from the 1950s.

She also checked out a book containing the same classic yuletide poem. Both media contained depictions of Santa smoking a pipe and drinking a cup of…holiday cheer.

Sheeran returned the book and movie with notes saying the materials were inappropriate for her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, and demanding that they be removed from the library.

On December 17, just in time for Christmas, the library board issued its ruling: the materials would not be removed from the children’s section. Policy held that censorship is a purely individual matter, and that the library does not act in place of parents with regard to materials that children select.

Library Director Beth Saul sent a letter to Sheeran, notifying her of the board’s decision and thanking her for her interest and involvement.

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