LaPORTE — Life was harder back then, but its quality during Christmas long before the holiday became so commercialized was actually better.

Those were among the feelings Saturday during another heavily attended Christmas at Pioneerland at the LaPorte County Fairgrounds.

The 17th annual event also held Sunday provided a glimpse of the season during the 1830s with all of the dozen or so buildings like the log cabin, one-room schoolhouse and blacksmith shop manned by volunteers wearing pioneer clothing.

There were trees in some of the buildings decorated with popcorn strings and other primitive decorations of that period along with Santa Claus, whose maroon colored suit and longer, skinnier hat reflected his style of clothing in the 18th century.

There were horse-drawn wagon rides and dulcimer music played softly in the background not to mention a raging fire in the log cabin where hot cider heated in a cast iron pot above the flames was readily served.

And so were cookies homemade from recipes of nearly 200 years ago.

As always, there was no charge for anything except for any items purchased from the General Store.

If things weren't spiritual enough, there was a roaring campfire never short on people sitting around.

Electricity was still at least a half century away so the only thing not authentic were the lights strung throughout the village.

John Tibbs, of LaPorte, was struck most by the atmosphere portraying a simpler way of life where respect and appreciation were not in short supply and families relied on each other more for survival and entertainment.

"It's good to see the town come together like this. Everybody is happy here. You see smiles everywhere. With everything that is going on in the world and stuff like that, it's good that we can all get together like this and have a good time," Tibbs said.

Dillon Kreighbaum and his wife, Jennifer, made the 20-minute drive from Kingsford Heights for the very first time.

Jennifer Kreighbaum especially liked the blacksmith shop and the candy canes, nails and other items all made of metal right there by the craftsmen.

"It's definitely something cool for the kids and for the families to come see," Dillon Kreighbaum said.

Merle Miller, a crowd pleaser for his antics during history lessons about blacksmithing, said there are other Pioneerland setups but this just might be the only one running strictly on donations and all unpaid volunteers.

"There are other places that do it where they charge you to come in the door and all of the people get paid. This is all free," Miller said.

Last year's attendance estimated at 5,000 for both days easily broke the record and based on the turnout Saturday a strong chance was given for eclipsing the previous mark.

The LaPorte County Farm Bureau handed out free hot chocolate and popcorn. Before the night was over, the bureau already had gone through 60 gallons or about half of what they ordered for both days.

"We've had a lot of people through here. We're going to have to go out and get some more," said Kayla Meyers, a bureau member.

Shannon Shippee, of Rollng Prairie, came with her husband, Chad, and their 10-year old son, Austin, who came out of the blacksmith shop with a pair of reindeer shoes.

Austin also mailed a letter to Santa in the old-fashioned post office, which leaves a Pioneerland postmark on each letter.

It was their first trip here at Christmas after years of talking about going and walked away knowing they had experienced something unique.

"We've never been to an actual place where you go and walk through like a different era. It just takes you back," Shippee said.

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Porter/LaPorte County Editor

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.