In a manner reminiscent of old time newspaper serials, we bring the following tale to you from the shadows of the archives. Set on the John and Lillie Crawford family farm on Browns Island, now Minto-Brown Island Park, it is the story of Christmas 1904 written by their daughter Beatrice who was 9 years old at the time.
“Christmas came every year and mostly it was merry. Community sharing with a great fir tree in the Quaker church, trimmed and with small presents…programs and song. Food was never a problem, but “cash money” was. Goodies, friends, carols (new shoes, maybe), trees, we lived with trees. We may have been deprived…but we didn’t know it. In fact we were forever thanking our lucky stars, and heaven in particular, for our great good fortune – to be alive and well, happy and healthful. We shed tears over the plight of “The Little Match Girl,” a waif of the London streets we read about. We were so sorry for children in great cities who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree. We had only to choose the one most beautiful.
Then there came the time, through misfortunes of all kinds, bad weather, poor crops, loss of livestock, debts and illness, that we could afford nothing but a tree for our Christmas.
Nothing to spare for gifts, even material to make some. It was going to be a sad season, even with plenty to eat and wood fires to keep us warm and each other.
Then mama had an inspiration. We would all do something for the baby. She couldn’t know anything about why there were no gifts. We were big and could take it. Here I was all of nine. So a few days before the great day, my little sister’s doll disappeared. She couldn’t find it any place because we were working on a secret project after she was asleep in bed.
Dad brought in the nicest, green fir tree ever. In the warmth of the house it smelled so good, it was a pleasure to trim. I strung popcorn, made paper chains, cutouts of clowns and that jolly fellow, still known as Santa. That was my job. And I went all out, even baking cookie-dough little men with dried fruit buttons and string hangers.
Meantime, Mama and Grandma Hanna reconditioned the kid-leather-bodied biscuit-headed doll. With scraps of turkey-red cotton left over from quilts, they fashioned a brand new outfit. It had a full skirt, long sleeved blouse, with a finishing touch of lace left over from last year’s new curtains, as an overlay. She was complete with new panties made out of flour sack muslin. She was resplendent tied to the tree itself, about half-way up where Opal could but see it, first off, Christmas morning as she came down stairs.
We all lined up to watch. Beautiful…it made her day. It was a joy for all.
And doesn’t the good book say: “It is more blessed to give than to receive?”
Young Beatrice Crawford had learned one of the greatest lessons of all, the joy of serving others particularly at Christmas time. Beatrice would go on to share this story and others from her childhood in Salem with school children clear into her 90s. She was living history personified.
Beatrice graduated from Salem High School in 1914 and went on to attend Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University. She served with the Army during World War I as an overseer in a gas mask factory after which she married her first husband Harvey Newcomb in 1918 and had one daughter, Joan. She married her second husband James Drury in 1933 and had two sons, James and John. Home base for the family was New York City where her husband taught at New York University, though the family spent summers in Salem. Beatrice Crawford Drury returned to Salem permanently after the death of her husband James and was active in many civic organizations including Marion County Historical Society. She died at the age of 96 on March 2, 1992 and was buried in Belcrest Cemetery.
Now lest you think that early account of Christmas 1904 was only sweetness and light, let us return to Beatrice’ account where we find a postscript with the notation, read at your own risk.
Maybe you had better not read this. ‘Tis very sad, but it is the truth, so I must write it down.’
I had an older sister, too. It was her job to tidy up. So after breakfast when everyone was busy, Opal enjoying her “new” doll; papa splitting wood to keep the oven going to roast our dinner; Mama, Grandma and I doing small chores in the kitchen. She approached the living room broom in hand.
Before I knew it she had dismantled my precious tree, my beautiful tree, my labor of love, my only Christmas and tossed it out onto the burning pile. She said she thought it had served its purpose…there were no more presents on it. Useless…so throw it out. It was useful to me. It was my “shining city on a hill.” So be careful what you throw out, it might be somebody’s dream. Make sure it isn’t your own. We all need dreams.
Thankfully Beatrice did not let this traumatic ending to Christmas 1904 prevent her from reaching for her own dreams and sharing her childhood memories. Thanks to her, many generations of Salem schoolchildren were able to learn and connect with their own community’s history through her story-telling abilities.
This article was written by Kaylyn Mabey for the Statesman Journal newspaper where it appeared on Sunday December 17, 2017. It is reproduced here with sources for reference purposes.
- 2013.067.0005 “Christmas is Love” by Beatrice Crawford Drury
- Beatrice Crawford Drury obituary – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Fri. Mar 6, 1992, p. 16
- History comes to life for Salem kids – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Sat. Jan 19, 1991, p. 25
- Willamette Valley books – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Tue. Apr 7, 1992, p. 16
- Pioneer Salem historian, volunteer Drury dies at 96 – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Tue. Mar 3, 1992, p. 15
- A journey into holiday’s past at church event – Capital Journal (Salem, OR) – Thu. Dec 20, 1979, p. 33
- 95-year-old Salem woman is part of city’s beginnings – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Sun. Mar 24, 1991, p. 1
- Beatrice Drury Writes True Tales for Children and Adults – Statesman Journal (Salem, OR) Fri. Nov 1, 1974, p. 25