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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Christmas Stories

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Christmas 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 wheel.

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.)

As Granddad 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 an idea.

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.

In 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 way.

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.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 15, 2016

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