This is Roy French’s annual Christmas memóir.
Mr. Houck came early to the Sangamon Valley while it was still a wilderness without many inhabitants. He came before the land was surveyed so his fields stretched from the big sycamore tree to the east to the large cottonwood on the creek bank to the west. All the land in between and up to the foothills to the south was his.
He watched the spring rains come, and the Sangamon River overflowed its banks and covered his fields. Houck was a patient man. He watched the water recede, and after the floodwaters were gone, he noticed a thick layer of mud covering his fields. It was the richest mud he had ever seen. It was good topsoil from the river bottom land. When the season was right, he plowed it under and grew the best crop of corn and wheat in the whole river valley. Instead of the flood being a detriment, it was good to him.
Houck prospered and bought land to the east toward the rising sun. He bought hill ground to the south that was good pasture for his horses, cattle and hogs. It was good for his sheep, too. Freshwater springs fed into creeks that flowed from the hollows and provided ample water for the livestock.
The community grew. There was now a school and a church, both of them fine brick structures. They had a manse for the preacher to live in. It wasn’t long before a blacksmith opened a shop, and they had a name. It was Hickory Precinct.
By now Houck had a wife and good neighbors all around. He tended to his farming and to his livestock. The rains came. The sun shone, and life was good in the Sangamon bottom.
Toward the end of the year, when all the crops were harvested and put away, when the cattle and sheep were all fattened for winter, Houck, who was a thoughtful man, had time to think about all his good fortune.
Toward Christmastime on a Sunday afternoon, he put on his suit, overcoat and bowler hat, hitched up his favorite driving mare to his Sunday rig and trotted off down the road. He passed his neighbors. He went a mile or so past the church and school, then turned north on Guntown Road and continued until he came to a lane that led him back to Elder Schaad’s place.
Schaad welcomed him. They had much to talk about farming in the Sangamon Valley. After a while, Houck reached to an inner pocket and brought out a check and said, “Spend it any way you want, just so long as it’s for the good of the church.”
Schaad cordially thanked him and they shook hands. With that, Houck took his leave, and his horse and rig disappeared up the lane.
This went on for several years as regularly as clockwork. Then one December day close to Christmas, Schaad saw Houck coming down the lane. Schaad’s curiosity got the best of him. He was perplexed because none of the Houcks attended the church. Mrs. Houck was not a member of the Missionary Society.
Schaad had to ask. “Thank you very much, Mr. Houck, for the check, but what is the reason for your generosity with the church?”
In a moment, Houck began to speak. “Well, you see, it’s like this, Mr. Schaad. I feel this valley is a better place for having the influence of the church here. The members of this church are my good neighbors, and I cannot ignore their benevolent presence.
“Each morning as I wake, I look over this bottom land from my upstairs window. I can see their farms, can see most of their homes, see many already out in their fields, and I am thankful for this place where I live. The value of my life and the value of the land I tend is greater for having your church nearby. I feel it’s a blessing. So you see, Mr. Schaad, when I explain my giving to the church as I have, I feel my contribution doesn’t quite balance with the goodness I receive. But do with it what you will till I can make it more.”
They shook hands, a thankful handshake. Houck climbed into his rig, and with a “Giddy up” disappeared up the lane. Schaad watched him until he was out of sight.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Houck,” he said in a whisper. “Merry Christmas to you.”
Roy French of Virginia, Illinois, 84, has contributed a Christmas memoir to Illinois Times every year for many years. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 133, Virginia, IL, 62691.