If we’re lucky in this life, some of the best Christmas presents we ever receive are stories. This is one of the favorites of my own family:
The Christmas of 1933 the Great Depression was four years old. In the newspapers and on the radio the politicians were promising better times, but in the Pearl Mill mill village an end to hard times seemed nowhere in sight. There seemed little reason for even having hopes of an end anytime soon.
As unlikely as it might seem now, in that time and place events played out that gave my family the gift of a story told at least once every Christmas down through the decades since.
The village had risen along with the textile mill, built in the early 1890s about eight miles east of Elberton along Beaverdam Creek, offering workers a modest prosperity as an alternative to hardscrabble sharecropping. All that ended when the mill burned in 1929, the mill workers and their families forced to find new lives even before the ashes had cooled. In time most of the over thirty mill houses stood empty and the mill property gradually slipped into the receivership of Elberton’s First National Bank. The crumbling hulk of the burned out three-story brick and stone mill loomed over what was mostly a ghost town.
My grandfather farmed near the village. He had worked in the mill several times, boy and man, beginning when he was six and his family had moved from Jackson County to Elbert, and now he scratched a living out of the red and gray dirt, with a few acres of cotton as a cash crop. Like most small farmers, even before the first boll was picked the greater part of his crop was owed to one of the combination storeowner-cotton buyers in Elberton for seed and fertilizer and what food couldn’t be raised. It was a very good year that saw him end up with two hundred dollars in cash when the cotton was sold.
The First National Bank also paid him $3.50 a month for being a night watchman of sorts over the mill property. With my grandmother, my two aunts and my father, then five years old and the youngest child, to provide for, in addition to a frequent houseful of relatives in need of a place to stay, the extra money was more than welcome.
Over time a few people, mostly older couples, with no real livelihood and nowhere else to go, drifted back to Pearl Mill and squatted in the mill houses. As long as the squatters took care of the houses, the bank president told my grandfather, there was no harm in letting them stay. Pearl Mill almost became a village again, but hardly a thriving one. “Looking back later, it was hard to see how they made it through,” my father always said in the telling the story he’d been told, himself remembering some of the later Depression years. The relief that filtered down through the county was limited, and looking for work was almost a lost cause. Hundreds of men, black and white, from young and spry to old and shuffling, according to the December 1 edition of the Elberton Star, thronged an unemployment office in Elberton the last week in November to register for jobs under relief programs. But, the paper noted, R.H. Johnson, manager of the unemployment office, made clear to all that registering was no guarantee of work.
Among the mostly old, there was one young family in the village. Marshall Stanley, his wife and their three daughters, the girls in ranging from maybe six years old to no more than 12 in recollections, had moved into a mill house. Stanley had been a mechanic, and a good one by all accounts, somewhere in the vicinity of Commerce before coming down with an illness that kept him bedridden much of the time. Mrs. Stanley had relatives in Elbert County, so the family landed in Pearl Mill as the likely the only shelter they could find. With some sewing and the occasional odd job that turned up, Mrs. Stanley earned what little money they had, but no matter what, four to five dollars a month had to go for medicine that was her husband’s only relief. Neighbors, then as now and maybe more so, shared what they could and not from any abundance. The Stanleys scraped by.
People looked forward to Christmas then maybe more than now, it seems, and certainly in the country they made sure it lasted longer. On the farms, most of the hardest work was done till spring, and the pace could slow a little. Two weeks or more before Christmas, the children were set to sweeping the bare dirt yards as the women and older girls looked to what they needed to cook and bake. If they could afford it, that would be a lot. Not because Christmas was looked on as a reason to over indulge but because a country Christmas lasted from Christmas Eve till at least New Year’s Day. Visitors were expected during those days and nights and a good part of the cooking and baking, especially the baking, was preparation for welcoming them. Groups of younger people, usually “courting age,” sometimes joined by some older folks, would go from house to house at night in the community caroling, accepting offers of cake and, for the men, maybe a glass of persimmon beer or a dram of high-proof Christmas spirit from a fruit jar of a local moonshiner’s best.
By custom − and how and why it came to be, no one recalls − my grandparents would never do any shopping until the day of Christmas Eve. Some years, the eight-mile trip had to be made by horse-drawn wagon, with them leaving before daylight. During the hardest of the Depression years my grandfather could seldom turn over to my grandmother as much as ten dollars to buy what the children needed or wanted, more likely closer to five dollars − and what was needed got priority. Any needed clothes were bought first, and then a plain toy or two for each child (one year around this time my father received the first of his several “Big Little Books” of adventure stories, some of which I still have). But “buying Christmas” mostly meant buying things not usually bought any other time of the year − candy, nuts, fruits you didn’t grow. In 1933, you could buy a lot of that in Elberton for a few dollars − if you had the few dollars. Fowler’s Grocery, where my grandfather preferred to shop, advertised its full holiday line in the December 22 edition of the Star that year: Mixed hard candy, 10 cents per pound; peppermint sticks, 23 cents a two-pound box; chocolate creme drops, a two-pound tub for 25 cents; oranges or apples, a penny apiece; bananas, 11 cents per pound; fresh grapes, 10 cents per pound; seeded raisins, two 15-ounce packages for 15 cents; Brazil nuts, 15 cents per pound. Cheese was a favorite thing for Christmas in the Chandler family − a rarity any other time − and the grocery offered “Best Cheese” at 15 cents per pound. It’s hard to imagine now macaroni and cheese as a holiday delight, but in that time and place it was just that. Fresh coconuts for the coconut cake that no Christmas in the Chandler family would be complete without were a bargain at 5 and 7 ½ cents apiece, depending on the size. Their whole haul from all this buying would probably no more than fill a modern shopping cart, but the scarcity of these items most of the year at Pearl Mill made it a cornucopia of abundance.
But in all this readying for Christmas a troubling question hung in the air: What kind of Christmas were the Stanley girls facing?
That was answered on Christmas Eve, when three small boxes found their way to the porch of the Stanley house for the girls to find the next morning. The $5 to $10 or thereabouts had been made to stretch even further. Each girl got a paddle ball, a simple wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached with a string, surprisingly a novel toy in the early 1930s. And with that each box also had some fruit and candy. “They came up to the house on Christmas morning, showing us what Santa Claus had brought them,” my father often recounted. “They were as proud of all that as children today would be of every toy in a store. They had probably been told not to expect anything.”
In time, Marshall Stanley’s health improved so he was able to get a job as a mechanic back near Commerce and the family moved from Pearl Mill. The story doesn’t end there, though. His and my grandfather’s paths would cross again a few years later.
It was during a trip to visit Chandler relatives in Jackson County. A mishap on a country road ended in a broken car axle not far from Commerce but a long way from home. Then it was recalled that Marshall Stanley had moved back to the area. By word of mouth he was found and came to the rescue, and in a matter of a few hours he had a new axle in place.
He refused any and all payment. His only reply to my grandfather’s protests and urging was, “No, Raymond, you paid me years ago.”
And so the story was always repeated over the years, never growing with the telling but sticking with the bare facts.
A good deal of the mill village was blown away by a tornado in December 1942. In years afterward my grandfather was able to buy the whole mill property, farming in the shadow of the burned and crumbling building that loomed over the landscape. The few surviving mill houses became barns. My grandfather and grandmother moved into what had been the mill superintendent’s house, bigger and finer (in its day) than the rest. In that house as a child in the 1960s I spent some of my own happiest Christmas Days. At least three generations of the family would be at hand. Tables would hold more food than could be eaten in a week (including macaroni and cheese by every contributing cook). And my grandmother would see that every child got at least one small toy.
And at some point, and sometimes more than once, the story of that Christmas of 1933 would be told.
This story is no sermon, and I’m not looking to make it one. Each can look at it in his own light. It’s just a simple story that became part of one family’s Christmas catechism. A simple act of seeing that three little girls were not left out of the joys of the season was repaid in practical terms many fold. It involved no lavish and expensive gifts − in that time and place there were none to be had − but instead small tokens given not out of excess or even abundance but given from meager means out of simple caring. Small gifts that gave happiness far out of proportion to their price tag. No matter how little their money in hand, neither of my grandparents would have been happy in the season in their own right with lacking, disappointment and the heartbreak of children near enough for them to touch. The three boxes left on the porch in the dark of a Christmas Eve were gifts they gave themselves. The story of it all, never told in its own time but only years afterward, is a gift to the rest of us.