Volume X, No. 2, Winter 1982




A CHRISTMAS NIGHTMARE

IN 1933

A RECOLLECTION

by Vesta McKinnis


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As I lay in bed with a shaft of light coming up the stairs and the familiar smell of ham frying and coffee perking, I knew Mommie had a pan of biscuits in the oven, and it wouldn't be long before Poppie would call up that breakfast would soon be ready. But lying in a warm bed with my sister Maxine, I thought back to the night before when we had had our Christmas tree. I don't remember what I received for Christmas now, but we usually got crayons, color books and a new dress that Mommie had made or small gifts from each other.

There were eight of us children, but at the time of this story, two were married and living in homes of their own.

We put on our clothes in the semi darkness and headed down the stairs because we all ate at one time, the six children along two sides of the table and Mommie and Poppie at each end. I don't remember that we had prayer this morning, but we were good Baptist people, and we always had prayer when company was at the table or on special occasions. It was a hearty breakfast of ham, eggs, biscuits, jelly or molasses and cooked cereal, rice or oatmeal, coffee or milk and real Jersey cream for the cereal and coffee. After Poppie would eat, he finished off his meal with crusts of biscuits put in his coffee and then put out in his saucer. Over this was sugar and cream. We called it "soakie."

Poppie had finished eating and our conversation was lively because this was Christmas Day. He asked how many wanted to go to Grandma Brown's. We voted as to our wishes, and then he said to see who could get the highest. We smaller children who couldn't reach the low ceiling always stood up on the bench. Grady, the eldest son at home, could touch the ceiling by standing up and stretching out his arm. Maxine, Betty and I, seated on the bench, all stood up on it and reached for the ceiling. In the process we looked out the window, and though it was Still before daylight, the yard was lit up. Poppie and Grady ran out and saw the roof of the house was all aflame. The flue had burned out in the kitchen stove setting the wood shingles on fire. The whole roof over the dining room was on fire!

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They told me to call out to the neighbors on the phone, and I gave the eight shorts which was the emergency call on a line of about twenty-four families. I kept repeating, "The house is on fire and it's burning" In my excitement I couldn't tell them whose house it was that was burning.

Two neighbors had driven past our house before I rang the alarm and thought the yard looked light, but since the fire was on the back side of the house, they couldn't see it from the road. In a matter of minutes after I rang the alarm the yard was full of neighbors.

My sister, Dorothy, had received her engagement ring the night before. It was too large and she was afraid she would lose it. I found some work gloves someone had received the night before. She put them on and wanted me to help her get her hope chest out of the house. She also helped me get my trunk of hope chest material out. When we came around to the front of the house, Grady was tearing off the screen door because it opened out and the ceiling on the porch sloped and wouldn't let it open out all the way, I cried, "Grady, don't tear the house down" all the time it was burning furiously. Then I thought how silly and got out of the way.

Dorothy and I watched two men pick up the upright player piano and carry it out for several feet into the yard. It took about eight men to move the piano across the road to the barn and put it in the wheat granary. In the dining room Poppie had a shaving mirror that stretched in and out on the side of a window. It was put on with screws and everyone who passed it gave it a yank trying to get it off the wall. They also tried to get the phone off of the wall, and finally they did get it kicked off and out. The dishes were still on the table and the men, wanting to carry out the table, dumped them in the floor. A bowl of canned peaches was on the table and after they dumped them into the floor, two different men stepped in the juice and slid to the floor as slick as a whistle. The remains of an angel food cake was sitting on the sideboard and a man stuffed it into his mouth saying, "There isn't any use to waste it." The last time I saw the dining room Poppie's mirror was stretched as far as it could go, then turned down sadly. They couldn't get it off of the wall.

Meanwhile Mommie had gone up the stairs and got out some bedding and a few clothes, since that was where the fire had started, she couldn't get much. Poppie and Grady were carrying water from the cistern or barn trying to wet down the roof of the smokehouse to keep it from burning. All by herself Mommie got her Maytag washer with a gasoline motor out of the well house which was one step down from the kitchen. She carried it out over a wooden back porch.

The three youngest children were sitting out in the barnyard still in their night clothes with a quilt around them. Since most of our Sunday clothes were in the downstairs bedroom we got most of them out, but two pair of shoes had one missing. It was a job to find the children some clothes to put on.

From the cellar which was beyond the well house, the neighbors carried out canned fruit and vegetables which Mommie had canned during the summer. They put them in the car, and Grady, Dorothy and I were to take them to an aunt's house about three miles away and put them in her cellar. As we started off I began to sing before I thought, because when we all got in the car we would sing and harmonize together, but after a word or two when Dorothy and Grady didn't join in, I began to cry as I realized what had happened.

The neighbors estimated that it took only eight to ten minutes for the house to burn to the ground, but you can do a lot of things in that length of time.

James and I were taken to my aunt's house where we slept on a fold-out divan. There was a fireplace and as the fire flickered over the room, James, the youngest of us children, cried himself to sleep that night. Maxine and Betty were taken to my married sister who lived about a half mile from my aunt.

The neighbors helped empty the wood out of the woodshed and set up a cook stove and a bed in it, and they set a bed up in the granary for Poppie and Grady to sleep in the first night. They were up most of the night wetting down the bed of coals to keep them from burning the smokehouse and woodshed.

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Christmas must have come on a Monday as we children were out cf school for the week. Tuesday, James and I walked over to my sister Blanche's house where Maxine and Betty were staying. They did not cry but sat and stared as in a daze. Blanche couldn't get them to eat anything they were so homesick. James and I walked back to Aunt Lora's for the night, but we were homesick to know what was going on back home.

My uncle and brother-in-law with neighbors were building a room on to the woodshed, trying to get a place for us children to come back home. The shed was wide enough for three full beds with a small path between them, and long enough that Maxine and I could sleep on a day bed that opened into a bed at night and a divan during the day. It had a wood heating stove to heat up the large room but no floor except sawdust put over the dirt. A cook stove and dining table were in the other room of the old woodshed. The roof was galvanized tin.

By Wednesday my uncle let James and me go up home where they were working on the shed. James began looking around for a place to sleep. When it was late evening and time to go back to my aunt's for the night, James cried and said he could sleep with Dorothy and Mommie so they let him stay.

The next day my uncle and aunt had to take off their eggs and go to Springfield on business. Before they left, they gathered up the washing and put a kettle over two caps on the wood cook stove to heat water and boil the white clothes. Though I was fourteen years old at the time of the fire and we girls had always helped Mommie wash, I had never all by myself done the rubbing on the washboard and boiling the white sheets and tea towels and rinsing them through two waters then hanging them on the clothesline outside to dry. It was cold winter time, also.

They had a boy living in the home who worked at chores for his room and board so he could attend high school. He was out splitting cook wood and during the morning while I was washing, he cut his foot through his boot with the ax. I had to help him get his boot off and I put sugar and turpentine on the cut and wrapped it to help stop the bleeding. By the time my aunt and uncle came home, I had the washing finished but was I homesick!

About Saturday they let us all come back home, and even though it was a dirt floor we were back together again. When Mommie would get up early and open up the stove to warm up the room and start breakfast, the room would begin to warm up and the cold outside would condense on the roof. Then big drops of water would hit us in our faces and we would know it was time to get dressed for breakfast.

After the house burned and Poppie had all of the worry of trying to get another house built, our meals were not the jolly times they had been before. We wondered if we would ever have the fun and lively discussions that we used to have before the fire.

By Monday we were back in school. We rode a bus to Fair Grove about five miles away. Dorothy dropped out of high school in her junior year as she was more interested in setting up a home than going on to school. Grady also quit after the tenth grade. I don't know how Mommie managed to get us all clothed again for school, but she could sew and I'm sure my aunt and sister helped her.

A man who had borrowed some money from my Poppie came to pay his interest and was astonished that the house was burned. He and Poppie sat by the stove and visited while he chewed tobacco. He would spit in the sawdust. My Poppie had always chewed tobacco but he always spit in a pan of ashes. Anyway, when he left to go home, Dorothy came with the fire shovel and broom as angry as could be saying, "We may have to live on a dirt floor but you don't have to spit on it!"

One of my uncles who lived in Springfield was a carpenter. He came to help Poppie draw up some plans for the new house we would build. It was a six room bungalow type with the house facing the west with the three bedrooms on the south and the kitchen, dining room and living room on the north. There was a long upstairs room that ran the entire length of the house. The only closet in the house was in the middle bedroom under the stair steps. The only request that Mommie wanted was three windows in the dining room be built out a little to be bay windows because she had a brother in Springfield whose house had them and she thought that would be so grand. But Uncle Roy thought with Poppie having to borrow the money from Grandpa Wiseman to build with, that it would just be too expensive, so they put three large windows in the dining room but they were not built out any.

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A neighbor about a quarter of a mile away was a carpenter, and he built the house with Poppie and Grady helping. My Poppie was a hard worker, but he had one stiff arm that had a bone taken out when he was nine years old. He couldn't raise it very high and it was a little shorter than the other arm. He could cut corn and had a woodpile that was the envy of all women because he always had it split a year ahead so it was good and dry. We girls never had to split a stick of wood while we were home. He helped milk the cows by hand but a carpenter he wasn't.

Grady tells about a man who came down the road who was a painter by trade, out of Chicago but in the country for his health. He agreed to paint the house inside and out for small wages and his board. He must have slept in the barn because I don't remember him eating and sleeping in the shed with us.

Dorothy and Mommie finished tacking some comforts for Dorothy because she got married in March of 1934. She had her other quilts and embroidered things finished.

The house was finished in May and they moved our beds in it the day before school was out. We had a new green and cream colored wood cooking range. The floors were pine but were all sanded and varnished with rugs on one bedroom and the living room floor, not wall-to-wall like we have today but nine by twelve carpets that were bought at a farm sale or in the store. We had linoleum on the other floors. Our iron bedsteads in the girls' bedroom were painted lavender matching curtains at the two windows. It sure did feel grand, a room all to ourselves and such luxury!

The afternoon we moved in I made some potato chips to carry in our lunches the next day. They must have been new then because I was always cooking things and trying new recipes. I also had plenty of help eating the things I would try, good or bad.

That summer things began to get back to normal again. We began to have our lively conversation at the breakfast table and then at supper discussed the things that had happened at home and at school for the day.

We had come through the long hardship of cold weather and had a new house to live in, but what is a home but all being able to be together in a woodshed or a palace. The children of Robert and Nina Wiseman. This photograph was taken about 1927 in front of the house that burned in 1933. The children are: first row, left to right, James, Betty, Maxine and Vesta, (the author); second row, Dorothy, Blanche, Owen and Grady. (Old photograph courtesy of Vesta McKinnis.)

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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