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Visitors kick off holidays with old-fashioned fun

12/8/2013

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Hundreds of visitors were expected to brave single-digit temperatures and wind-chill readings below zero both Friday and Saturday nights to celebrate Christmas Past at Historic Fort Hays.

Co-site directors Connie Schmeidler and Tammy Younger expected anywhere between 500 and 1,000 visitors each night this weekend at the historical site, located at 1472 U.S. Highway 183 Alternate.

Jerry Sprock, pastor at First Baptist Church, and his wife Nancy brought some Chinese students from Fort Hays State University to Friday's event.

"I've been here a number of times," he said. "We brought some of our international students with us from China here this evening; it's their first time."

Sherrie Smith, Hays, has dressed up in period clothing and sung as part of a choir for approximately 26 years for Christmas at the Fort.

"I have a love for doing living history, and I like Christmas time," she said. "I like living history; I like the fact we had a fort here. I think the history of the area is important. I like music, so here we are."

Smith also appreciated the fact she was inside one of the officers' quarters, and not outside like other living history volunteers.

"I like being inside," she said. "The fried apple people have my sympathy tonight."

Serving hot apple cider warmed by a campfire was Cord Sprague, Hays. A rancher, he has volunteered for Christmas Past approximately 12 years. Sprague had a tent set up by his campfire. Some years, he has camped out overnight, but not this year.

"It's amazing how many people you see year after year; it's kind of tradition for them," he said. "That's neat to see. Kind of kicks off the Christmas season, too."

Sprague said he has no intentions of stopping his contribution to Christmas Past, which first started in 1970.

"As long as they keep having it, I'll be here," he said.

This year is the first time Historic Fort Hays has conducted the annual Christmas event without longtime administrator Bob Wilhelm, who retired last spring.

But Schmeidler has worked at the fort for 26 years, and Younger for 25 years. That institutional knowledge has eased the transition, they said.

"We had been doing it ... we pretty much knew it all, what needs to be done," Younger said.

Younger enjoys working at the fort, especially at Christmas time.

"I never get tired of the people and all of the artifacts," she said. "It's been a great place to work."

Schmeidler and Younger oversaw approximately 20 volunteers this weekend.

"We have a love of history, which is first and foremost," Schmeidler said. "Especially with Christmas Past ... it just has a special feeling to it."