By Elizabeth Cooper Mike
From the pen of the late Elizabeth Cooper Mike, Kimball Historical Society member, in her book "The Girl From Stickney Hill, Kimball Prairie, Minnesota" (Reprinted with permission of the author.)
As the old familiar Christmas music floated through the windy snow-swept streets of downtown St. Paul, a sharp longing for my family, mingled with the excitement of the season, carried my eager feet along to my first shopping spree away from home. I was a first-year University of Minnesota student attending on a small scholarship, a part-time University-related job, and a very small Methodist Wesley Foundation loan.
It was 1936. I was 18 years old, almost 19. And I had eight and one-half dollars to spend, part of which I had saved by skipping the five-cent, very thick, "eat with a spoon" chocolate malted milk at the drug store, where I boarded the street car in Minneapolis every day for the 10-mile ride back to my grandmother's brown bag lunch. Everyone I knew ate on campus. So I went without eating from 7 in the morning until 5 or 6 at night.
But now the music was wrapping itself around me. "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem." My family always went to church on Christmas Eve to sing the old carols, to hear the children's program carrying the message of Christmas, and to be given a bag of candy from under the Christmas tree.
Now the bells of the Salvation Army workers seemed to be ringing from every corner, as the ringers bent over their black kettles. I imagined the soft clang of the cow bells in our barn, when the animals shifted from foot to foot, as Daddy and the boys milked in the lantern-lit shadowy barn, their hands pushed into the soft flank of the cows. On Christmas Eve they would fling open the back door of the kitchen and announce they were ready for supper and Santa Claus.
The little kids would jump up and down with excitement. Rachael Ann was 3. Davy was a year and a half. More restrained would be 7- and 8-year-old Robert and Bill, half doubting the Santa myth, but grinning in anticipation of presents they would not realize my Muddy had made or skimped out of the cream money to buy. It was a bad year, 1936. We were in the depth of the Great Depression. The year before, one of the neighbor boys had gotten just one present for Christmas, a pair of mittens which his parents found on his hands as he slept that night.
Our family was luckier. My grandparents, Nana and Papa, and my bachelor Uncle Ken always brought us presents and lots of candy and gum. In fact, now, as I walked along the streets, I was wearing my "much longed-for" tan colored, knee-high, laced up leather snow shoes, topped by green wool socks which my Uncle Ken and Nana had given me for Christmas. I was wearing a green coat that I thought clearly marked me "country," which Muddy had remodeled from an old one she had acquired from someone. But the new green leather coat belt and the current fashionable snow shoes kinda made up for the ugly green coat. I could never tell my mother how much I hated that coat, how uncomfortable I felt in it.
But now, walking along the street, I was excited about being able to buy presents for everyone, the little ones of course, Muddy and Daddy, and even Jack, Peggy, Frederic, and Woodrow. Eight people. And Nana and Papa and Uncle Ken made 11. If I shopped carefully, I knew I could do it.
The music was playing, the bells were ringing, and the crowds were hurrying past, in and out of stores. Excitement carried me along. As I looked at the sparkling displays in store windows. Inside the Emporium Department Store was a giant Christmas tree decorated in the latest fashion and with fancy electric lights. At home, our tree would be lit by colored candles fastened to the tree with tin snap-on holders. Muddy would shop for a tree the day before Christmas because, at the last minute, it could be purchased for a quarter or even a dime.
Then the tree would be secreted in the front room on the library table, high away from tiny groping hands, in front of the big window with the colored panes of glass at the top. The door would be tightly closed, and from then on until after Santa's visit, only the adults and older children would be allowed to open the door and go in. First, Santa's cookies and milk would be put by the door, and someone would carefully take one bite out of a cookie, establishing real proof that Santa had indeed made a visit.
Paper ropes of red and green, worn and twisted from many years of use, would be draped around the tree, along with strings of cranberries and popcorn. Some glass bulbs and fake snow would be added. And all the home-made ornaments. Candles would be placed on the tree, only to be lit for 15 minutes on Christmas Eve and 15 minutes on Christmas Night. And only after the family had gathered around in silent ceremony. Lastly, the little kids would be shooed into the kitchen. Then the presents would be sneaked from under my mother's bed and placed under the tree. Last of all, the big red three-dimensional paper bell would be placed in the doorway just waiting for Daddy to come in from milking.
I came back out of the Emporium into the fresh wintery air. I had to get my shopping done. I had to stretch my money and the Golden Rule Department Store was less expensive.
As I walked in that direction amid the music and the bells, and the sparkling store windows, I thought, I am so anxious to be independent and on my own, but the heart does ache to be home at Christmas time.
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Finishing well, to begin again. The Kimball Area Historical Society is just completing its ninth year of existence and these "History Matters" columns in the Tri-County News. Nine years of continuous research, stories and photos, articles and exhibits, incredible speakers and programs for meetings, planning committees of volunteers for every event accomplished, including the Kimball City Hall restoration project, and letters from you wonderful readers. Thank all of you for your support and enthusiasm over the years. Once again, we appreciate the financial gifts you're gifting for City Hall, membership and souvenirs. Drop us a line and let us know which stories were your favorites over these past nine years. What did you like the best? And what programs or speakers were your favorites.
Last minute guide to Christmas gifts 2009: Read about the area's rich history during our first 150 years. The first 65 years of Maine Prairie History Booklet is some of the best reading you will ever enjoy for yourself and the perfect "gift." For $10 your family and friends can unwrap magic. Ten area historic photos with story notecards, the commemorative coffee/cider/hot chocolate cups and a most unique picture trivet, each only $7 or three for $20. All locally and beautifully designed treasures. We have gifts for everyone on your list, year around available at the Kimball State Bank during normal business hours. The keepsake cookbook continues a best seller at $10 and is also available at the bank or at Knaus Sausage House in Kimball. Your purchases help support our mission of research, education and preservation of area history.
Your membership and support keep history alive. We are fortunate to have friends like you who enable us to continue to tell and preserve the powerful Kimball area stories. We hope you will consider renewing membership for 2010 by continuing your commitment to Kimball's Historical Society now. You will not only help today's visitors, but generations many years from now, to be inspired by and learn from the courage, sacrifice and aspirations of Kimball's first citizens. All donations and memberships are tax deductible by our 501C3 status. If you have recently joined or renewed a 2010 membership, disregard this reminder. Thanks again for your friendship and generosity.
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Turning the last pages of 2009 to begin 2010
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.