By Jim Ignasher
It was a beautiful summer morning in July of 1874, when a group of about forty men and women from the small town of Wooster, Ohio, boarded an excursion train to spend the day at Odell’s Lake, a few miles distant. They arrived around 9:00 a.m., and congregated along the shoreline and picnic grounds with other tourists who’d come to enjoy the day.
At about eleven o’clock seven members of the Wooster party decided to take a rowboat out onto the lake. Although it was summer, it was an age which required modesty, and even a day trip to the beach required a woman to wear a full length skirt and blouse, and a man to don a sports jacket, tie, and trousers.
Life-jackets don’t appear to have been a consideration as the boat was pushed from shore and glided out thirty feet. It then became apparent that it was overloaded by the way the sides sat low in the water. If there was any discussion about this, it wasn’t recorded. What is known is that as the men were about to employ the oars the craft suddenly overturned in eighteen feet of water spilling its passengers overboard.
The boat was now upside down, and the clothing of those struggling in the water restricted their movements leading some to panic as they struggled to stay afloat. One man named Thomen managed to right the boat, but three of the women grabbed hold of one side and all tried to climb aboard all at once, thus tipping the boat over again.
One of the men grabbed hold of his sister who was flailing nearby and held her head above water with one arm as he clung to the overturned boat with the other. Meanwhile Thomen was trying to steady the boat, and realizing it wasn’t going to sink, shouted orders to the others to grab hold of it, but two of the women, encumbered by high-laced shoes and long garments, were unable to reach the boat just several feet from their grasp.
The shrieks of the drowning women echoed across the lake as those on shore watched in horror at the tragedy unfolding before them. Among those drawn to the scene by the commotion were August Imgard and George Faber, who immediately dove into the water and swam to the boat. Faber swam to Louise Hine who was the farthest from shore, but she sank below the surface before he could reach her. Diving under the water, he pulled her to the surface and brought her to shore where she spewed some swallowed water, but would recover.
Meanwhile the 46-year-old Imgard went after Kate Hine who’d also disappeared. He found her several feet underwater and grabbed her by the hair, not knowing that she was wearing false braids which tore away in his hand. He dove once again and this time grabbed her real hair and brought her to the surface. Holding her head above water he swam with her back to shore.
The rest of the party managed to cling to the over turned boat and gradually get it to shore. All involved were soaking wet, but safe.
Details of this event were published in the Holmes County Republican, (A now defunct Ohio newspaper.) on July 30, 1874. Yet it wasn’t his daring rescue that made August Imgard famous. In fact, the lake rescue is virtually unknown and forgotten when it comes to his biography, so it’s mentioned here, and speaks to Mr. Imgard’s character. What made Imgard famous, and led his name to be associated with Christmas happened twenty-seven years earlier.
August Imgard was a German immigrant, born in 1828, who settled in Woorster, Ohio, about 1846, and became a successful tailor.
One day in December of 1847, Imgard went into the woods and cut down a small blue spruce and brought it to his home. This simple act may seem mundane today until one realizes that this was a time when Christmas trees in America were virtually unheard of. Imgard decorated his tree with sugar-glazed nuts, hand-made paper ornaments, candy canes, and a hand-made tin star for the top. He set the tree on a revolving stand atop of a table where it would slowly turn while a music box played.
Word soon spread, and people came from all around Wooster to view this marvelous innovation hailed as the first Christmas tree in America! The following year others in Wooster copied Imgard’s example, and the tradition spread from there.
In 1851 the Reverend Henry C. Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio, inspired by Imgard’s tree, became the first pastor to have a Christmas tree placed inside a church. At first, not everyone appreciated the idea, some calling it idolatry, but after awhile it came to be accepted.
To be clear, Imgard didn’t invent the Christmas tree, but for more than a hundred and fifty years he was credited as being the first in America to celebrate Christmas by having a decorated tree in his home. Modern scholars now cite earlier examples, one being a Hessian soldier in 1777, and two other cases in Pennsylvania, one in 1816, the other in 1821. However, history has shown that those examples were short-lived, and never captured the public’s attention in the way Mr. Imgard did. Therefore it can still be said, even if he wasn’t the first, that August Imgard’s tree was the one that grew into the tradition we have today. Furthermore, Mr. Imgard still holds the honor of being the first man in America to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes.
August Imgard died on October 7, 1904, and was interred in the family crypt set into the side of a hill in Wooster Cemetery. In 1847, Woorster, Ohio, was a small village, but today is a thriving city of 27,000. And every year the residents of that city still honor August’s contribution to Christmas by placing a decorated tree beside his place of rest.