in Texas back during what came to be called "the panic of '06" was
a bit more austere than the holidays have been of late.
My late Granddad L.A. Wilke told me about a decidedly Dickinson-esque
Christmas Eve he experienced as a boy in 1906.
Money was tight back then, and as the oldest of five kids, my Grandfather
did not expect to get much of anything for Christmas. His dad was
a hard-working man who in the 1880s had been among the laborers
who helped build the state
Capitol. (He was a paid worker, not part of the convicts impressed
into stone cutting by the Texas prison system.) But no matter how
hard someone is capable of working, that honorable ethic doesn't
do a man -- or his family -- much good if few jobs are to be had
and money is scarce. And in 1906, that was the case.
But some time
that evening of December 24, his father left their modest house
in what is now called Central Austin. The son of an early Fredericksburg
settler, it was my Great-grandfather Adolph Wilke's habit to occasionally
drop by Scholtz' Beer Garten on San Jacinto Street to buy some sausage
and a bucket of beer to go. The term "to go," of course, had not
yet been coined. And health laws have long since precluding the
selling of beer by the bucket.
When he got home, however, he was not toting beer or sausage. Instead,
he carried a large lard can lid nearly as big around as a wagon
Inside the small frame house, the second-generation German-Texan
presented his children with a family-size gingerbread boy, fresh
from the Lundberg Bakery on Congress Avenue. (The old building still
stands at 1006 Congress.)
later told it, when he and his younger sisters and brother lit into
that hot gingerbread, they thought they were having a pretty fine
Christmas despite the nation's financial slump. That night further
helped him come to understand that Christmas giving is not at all
about the price or extent of the gift but everything about the spirit
in which it is given.
More than a half-century later, my mother struggled to come up with
a gift idea for her father, someone who at that stage of his career,
thanks to his own hard work, "the man who has everything." At some
point, she remembered Granddad's story of the Christmas gingerbread
boy he and his siblings got in the early 1900s. And that gave her
Letting her fingers do the walking, she located a business firm
in Austin willing to give
her a metal barrel lid that would pass as a large lard can top.
Then she baked a Texas-size gingerbread boy and delivered it to
Granddad atop that lid, fresh from the oven.
I was there, hoping Granddad might be willing to share an appendage
or two from that hot treat. I don't remember for sure, but I expect
he did. And I further suspect that he did so while trying to hid
the tears in his eyes.
Unfortunately, I could not continue that family tradition with my
mother. She was highly allergic to gingerbread!
Maybe while we were enjoying a glass of what Granddad called "sweet
milk" and Gingerbread, he told me about another singular Christmas
eve in his life.
the early 1930s, the nation wracked by a financial crisis far more
severe than that Panic of 1906, Granddad was city editor of the
now defunct Fort Worth Press. No matter the relatively impressive
title he held, the Scripps (later Scripps-Howard) newspaper chain
did not shower its employees with money. He and the reporters on
his staff worked hard for what little they did receive, and as unemployment
rose and kept rising, they were darn happy to get what they did.
But now it was Christmas Eve, and with a wife and two girls, Granddad
had no money to provide his family with much in the way of a festive
holiday. With the final edition of that day's newspaper "put to
bed," he left the Press building on Jones Street in downtown Cowtown
and started walking toward his car.
Adding to his dispirit, a strong norther was blowing.
Headed toward his parking place, he pondered his situation. While
intended to offer cheer, the holiday lights and bright store room
windows downtown bespoke a Christmas he could not extend to his
wife and the girls. Adding to the gloom of a short day turned to
night even before supper time, the temperature was falling faster
than the stock market had.
And then, not far from his car, something blowing along the sidewalk
caught his eye. A keen-eyed longtime hunter and a highly observant
journalist, he looked down to see a crumpled $5 bill blowing his
Snatching it up, he looked around. No one was anywhere near. Whoever
that bill had belonged to was long gone. Putting the fiver in his
empty money clip, he headed for Woolworth's. Thanks to a minor Christmas
miracle, his girls would wake up Christmas morning to find that
Santa Claus had managed to make it to their house despite the Depression.
December 15, 2016
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