Viola Helen Anderson did not grasp that the U.S. stood on the brink of a financial
crisis that would come to be called the Panic of 1906. All the San
Angelo girl cared about was that her daddy had died.
On a cold, rainy
day that winter, a big load of merchandise arrived at the March Brothers General
Store on Beauregard. That’s where her father worked and no matter the weather,
he insisted on supervising the wagon’s unloading.
Richard Anderson took
a cold which developed into pneumonia. Back then doctors called it the galloping
consumption. He died on Jan. 16 and they buried him in Fairmount Cemetery.
was a kind and gentle man and we really depended on him,” Helen remembered a lifetime
later, “but Mama and I had to keep going, and we did.”
While Helen attended
school, Minta Gafford Anderson supported them in the midst of a growing money
shortage by sewing and taking in boarders.
the state, Lizzie Gafford Kincaid and her husband Jim -- Helen’s aunt and uncle
– struggled to keep their dry goods store open in the little town of Lindale,
north of Tyler.
They sold everything from candy to coffins.
“Mama and Aunt Lizzie were
very close,” Helen said, “but Mama didn’t have much use for Uncle Jim, who fought
for the Union in the Civil War. Mama’s family’s farm in Mississippi had been destroyed
by Yankees and more than 40 years hadn’t dulled her memory.”
let out for the summer, the new widow and her daughter packed their big trunk
and took the train to East Texas.
While her mother spent time with her sister, visiting, sewing and helping with
the canning, Helen made friends with the daughter of the man who owned the hotel
adjacent to the railroad.
Behind the hotel, Helen and the other little
girl laid rocks on the ground to make the outline of an imaginary house. Finding
scattered pieces of broken china, they used those to set an imaginary table.
train coming in would mean a meal was about to be served at the hotel, so we’d
scoot in and collect all the food we wanted from my friend’s mother,” she recalled.
When her friend could not play, Helen spent time in her family’s store
playing solo hide-and-go-seek and freely helping herself to the candy bins.
stayed in Lindale
most of the summer, finally making the long train ride back to San
Angelo in time for the start of school.
Back in West Texas, Helen missed her
friend and their simple playhouse, her aunt and uncle and the candy in their store.
day in October, Helen happened to take her time coming home from school. She only
hurried when she walked through the old cemetery, where they had been digging
up graves to make room for a new high school. Jumping over the open graves, she
tried not to notice the coffin handles and shoe heels in the piles of dirt.
“Mama was a little put out with me when I finally got home,” she recalled.
Helen noticed a large wooden barrel in the middle of their small kitchen. She
assumed it held sugar.
made a lot of preserves, but I couldn’t understand why she would need a whole
barrel of sugar,” she said. “Mama pried the boards off the top and I scrambled
up on a chair to look inside. All I saw was peanuts.”
arrival of a barrel of peanuts seemed even more incomprehensible. Her mother could
barely afford the basics, certainly not a luxury like goobers.
still puzzling over it when she fished inside and pulled out an apron,” Helen
said. “Her next thrust produced a sack she handed to me. It was my favorite candy.
Mama told me to help her and my first dip brought out a comb and brush Mama said
I could have.”
Finally, Helen understood. Uncle Jim and Aunt Lizzie had
sent them a treasure chest in a 55-gallon barrel. It held assorted notions and
knickknacks, clothing, buttons, lace, powder jars, writing tablets for school,
pencils, dime novels, fruit, preserves, sweet potatoes, ribbon cane, and persimmons
– a veritable general store packed in peanuts.
“Every October we got our
barrel from Uncle Jim and Aunt Lizzie,” Helen recalled. “Mama never had much money,
but the October Barrel wasn’t charity. It was just understood back then that people
had to help people. I don’t know how many times Mama got called out in the middle
of the night when someone was sick, dead or having a baby.”
Minta did things for her sister, too. She even sewed for her Yankee brother-in-law.
last October Barrel came in 1916.
“By that time,” Helen said, “I was
married and pretty soon after that barrel came, my husband got a job with a newspaper
in Fort Worth and we moved. Not
long after that, Uncle Jim and Aunt Lizzie sold their store and came back to the
Helen never understood why her aunt and uncle chose to ship the
barrel in October instead of before Christmas, but she knew what it meant to a
widow and a fatherless girl.
For the rest of her long life, especially
when the days got shorter and the weather turned cooler, my grandmother remembered
the October Barrel and what it taught her.
© Mike Cox
September 25, 2008 column
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