A Christmas like no other

The true story of a Depression-era Christmas trip to a better life in Illinois


click to enlarge The Sangamon River in winter. - PHOTO BY GINNY LEE
The Sangamon River in winter.

“It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.
I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.”

Mr. Hoskins hummed this tune over and over, thinking things would surely get better soon. But his luck wasn’t getting better at all. He was a worried man.

It was in the late fall of 1936. The Depression had lingered a little longer than expected in the South. It was no different for his family in Tennessee. Hoskins was finding a little farm work here and there among his neighbors and he was pretty good with carpenter tools. But now with fall coming on and the unsettled weather he found less farm work, and the carpenter work was playing out.

He had two boys to feed and they were growing up strong. Christmas was only a few weeks away. There wasn’t money to spare for Christmas gifts. He talked things over with his wife. She couldn’t cut the food budget any more. They’d been living on beans and cornbread every other day and getting pretty tired of it.

The wife spoke up and said, “What about that letter from my brother Jess, up in Illinois? He said there was plenty of work up that way. They have a big corn crop and need help getting it shucked out and put in the crib.”

“Ah,” said Hoskins. “That’s a long way off and I’m not so sure our old car would make it.”

“So you think we can stay around here and borrow from your family a little longer? You know they are no better off than we are,” she replied.

Hoskins stepped over to the warmth of the cook stove with his hands carried on the bib of his overalls. What would it be like leaving the only place he’d ever lived, the place where he grew up? But he knew any work in this part of the country was awful scarce. It seemed nobody had any money.

Hoskins went to bed that night with a lot on his mind. Sleep wouldn’t come. He felt under the quilts for his wife’s hand. He found it. It was soft and warm. He listened to her slow breathing. It was like a melody, a lullaby to him. She is a good woman, he thought. She deserves better than this. She’s been awful understanding in doing without for so long. He loved her dearly. Sleep came to Hoskins in the morning hours.

He woke up with new thoughts filling his mind. Maybe he could do better in Illinois. He ate breakfast without a word. All morning he thought about how they’d make the move, what to take, what to leave behind. He looked over his old car, a 1924 Buick touring car. It had leather side curtains with isinglass windows. It would be cold and drafty, but they could dress warm and cover up with blankets. It had been a good car and ran good, even though it was 12 years old.

He kicked the tires and gained enough courage to tell his wife at noon that he’d changed his mind about Illinois. “Maybe our old car with a little care will make the trip. You write a letter to your brother, Jess. Tell him we’ll be up to visit in a few days,” he said. She was overjoyed, gave him a big hug and a smile. “What changed your mind. . . what changed your way of thinking?” she asked. He rubbed his face, hesitated, then said, “It’s the boys, Johnny and Robert. What kind of a father would I be if they got no Christmas presents at all?” Emotion filled him and he turned away.

All the rest of the day they sorted out what was necessary to take along and put the rest in boxes and sacks to leave with his family. He had to take a few tools to fix the car if need be, and carpenter tools if he found any of that kind of work in their new place.

They tied boxes to the car’s running boards. Quilts and suitcases filled the back seat. A favorite rocking chair was tied onto the back. In a few days they were ready to go. The car was packed full. The boys were excited about going to a new place. His wife was happy about getting to see her brother, expecially at this time of year.

They went to tell his family goodbye. All wished him luck in finding work. A brother took loose change out of his pocket and said, “Here, you take this. You’ll need it worse than I will.” Hoskins looked at the quarters and dimes and thanked his brother profusely. Grandma took three folded one dollar bills out of her apron pocket and pressed them into his hand. She looked him in the eye without any words, just a shy smile. “God bless you, Grandma. God bless you.” He hugged her and knew she had saved it out of her old-age pension money.

He gathered the wife and kids and said their goodbyes. They would leave for Illinois early the next morning. With the few dollars they had and the money they gathered, they felt ready for the trip. Hoskins used the evening to fill the car with gas. Twelve gallons it took. At 15 cents a gallon it came to a dollar and eighty cents. It was the first time he’d ever done that. But it was different now. They had a trip ahead of them.

They got up early next morning before daylight was breaking, ate some jam and biscuits for breakfast and scrambled out of the house to the car. They didn’t look back.

Hoskins started the old Buick, let it warm up a bit, looked over at his wife. She nodded and said, “Let’s get going.” He let out the clutch and they were on their way.

click to enlarge A 1924 Buick, like the one in which the Hoskins family made their 1936 road trip to Illinois.
A 1924 Buick, like the one in which the Hoskins family made their 1936 road trip to Illinois.

They knew about and understood the road signs in Tennessee and made good time in their travels. It was a brisk morning and the side curtains kept most of the wind out. The isinglass windows let the sunshine in to add a little comfort. They boys were bundled up in heavy coats and stocking caps. They could pull a blanket over them if they got cold.

They crossed into Kentucky and found it to be cooler with a cloudy sky. The boys missed the sun. The roads were different too. Hoskins said to the boys, “You look ahead here now. Pretty soon we’ll come to the Ohio River and a big bridge. That’s where we’ll cross into Illinois.”

In a few more miles they came to the big iron bridge. It was a long one. They looked at the boats on the water far below. They descended into Shawneetown on the Illinois side of the river. The road became confusing. They lost their way a couple of times and had to backtrack. It was time to take a break and stretch their legs a bit. They all relaxed now that they were in Illinois, bought oil and gas and ate more biscuits and jam. They had come more than halfway and there was no turning back now.

While they rested, Hoskins noticed a flake or two of snow land on the hood of the car. He thought they’d better move on while the snow was light. They got back in the car, tightened the side curtains, the boys got under the blankets and they were off.

They drove on unfamiliar roads through towns with strange-sounding names and Hoskins wondered if he was making a big mistake. But all men have doubts and “what ifs” during stressful times in their lives. He put the thoughts out of his head, gripped the wheel a little tighter and began to hum, “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song, I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.” His old car was not letting him down.

He got through the maze of East St. Louis and was nearing Alton. This is where he saw the first sign of Route 78. That was the route her brother wrote about. He felt warmth sweep over him. He woke his wife and told her where they were. They were on their way to see people they knew.

The snow was coming down a little harder now as they traveled farther north. The side curtains were flapping and letting some snow come in. Little Johnny was getting cold. The blankets were no comfort. He started to cry, a low sob at first and then a full-grown cry. He was cold on cold. Hoskins pulled over to the side of the road. He took Johnny from under the blankets and gave him a warming hug. Sobbing became less. Mother had on her greatcoat over sweaters. She put little Johnny next to her and wrapped the greatcoat over them both. In a few miles Johnny was asleep.

It had been 16 hours since they’d left Tennessee. Driving in the snow with one hand on the wheel, the other operating the windshield wiper and trying to see the road, was taking a lot out of Hoskins. About 25 miles an hour was the best he could do and the miles were passing slowly. He saw a sign that read 15 miles to Virginia. Their pulses quickened, eyes brightened. Now it was only a few miles to the Beardstown road turnoff. That’s where his wife’s brother lived.

“Turn left on the Beardstown road.” They said it out loud. “Turn left on the Beardstown road.” In the glow of the headlights, Hoskins and his wife saw the sign at the same time. He slowed to make the turn onto the country road. It was bumpy and narrow. They watched the mailboxes as the miles went by. Finally they saw Jess’s place come into view, and they pulled into his driveway.

The snow had nearly stopped by now. The wind wasn’t blowing. They shut off the car and turned off the lights. The house was dark. They sat there awhile. Were they at the right place? A match was struck in the house, then another. A lamp was lighted. The front door opened and there stood Jess in long johns holding a lantern. He yelled out over his shoulder, “Mom, they’re here. They’ve come to see us! Boy, are we glad to see you. Perk some coffee. Pop some corn. Get the ham out. We’ve got to feed these hungry travelers.”

They built up the fires, ate sandwiches and apples, and talked into the night. A small cedar tree decorated for Christmas with popcorn and cranberries sat on a table in the corner. Some of the shiny ornaments turned and twisted as they reflected the light of the kerosene lamp. It added a great deal to the intimacy of the setting and the season of the year. But bedtime came and Hoskins said, “I’d better go drain the radiator. There is only water in it.” Jess said, “I’ll go with you. Help you unpack.” “Won’t be much to unpack,” said Hoskins. Jess said, “What about Christmas presents?” “Ain’t any,” Hoskins said. “None at all?” said Jess. “Nope, none at all. No money to buy them. Just money for the trip up here,” said Hoskins.

Jess thought a minute. He looked at the poor man standing there, put an arm around his shoulder and said, “We’ll drive into town in the morning. It will be Christmas Day. The stores will be open, shoppers everywhere. We’ll buy presents for your wife and boys. It’ll be a Christmas like no other, you wait and see.”

Next morning they visited over a big breakfast of eggs, potatoes, sausage and fresh cow’s milk. The family hadn’t had a meal like that in a long time and they ate heartily. Jess got up from the table and said to Hoskins, “We’d best get into town before it gets crowded, don’t you think?” With that they left the table and went out to Jess’s car. They got in, Jess started the engine. He hesitated while the engine warmed and looked over to Hoskins. “You won’t mind if we take a little side trip a couple miles down the road, will you?” he asked. “I want to show you the corn crop down this way.”

They passed field after field of tall corn ready to shock and to shuck. Hoskins had never seen so much corn as he was seeing in the Sangamon Valley.

These fields are Mr. Taylor’s fields,” Jess began. “He generally has two hired hands, two tenants that do most of the farming, but the older one took sick a month or so ago. He quit, moved to town. Couldn’t do the work. He lived in the tenant house there by the creek. Mr. Taylor is looking for a good man to take his place. You’re the kind of man he’s looking for and he’ll hire you on my recommendation. You’ll fill the bill just right.” He looked over at Hoskins with a big grin on his face. Hoskins looked bewildered. He looked at Jess and said, “You’d do all that for me? It’s more than I ever imagined.”

“The day after Christmas we’ll go see Mr. Taylor. If I was a betting man I’d bet you’ll have job and a place to live come next Monday.” He said, “Now, let’s get to town and do a little Christmas shopping.”

Hoskins began to hum his favorite tune. “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song, it takes a worried man to sing a worried song – I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.” True to Jess’s prediction, it was a Christmas like no other.

Roy L. French of Virginia, 79 years old, has written a Christmas memoir for Illinois Times every year for about 30 years. His book, Hickory Road: Stories from Hickory Hollow (Publish America, 2011), is a collection of his stories, many of which have appeared in Illinois Times.

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