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Discover Mid-America —December 2005

Holiday times never forgotten by Ken Weyand

Times change, and the traditions that cemented families together a century ago are ignored or forgotten by many of us today. The holidays bring out feelings of nostalgia, with a bit of sadness for the closeness that families enjoyed in earlier times.

Nostalgia can be selective. If we grew up poor, our memories usually filter out many of the hard times, and retain the warmth of family and friends coming together to share simple blessings. If we felt lonely or neglected during the rest of the year, we treasure the times when we felt the closeness of the holidays.

The 1930s in America tested family traditions, especially in rural areas, where there was never enough money for anything but a modest celebration.

Betty Laverty, from Parkville, MO, who wrote a nostalgia column for Discover in the 1980s, remembered that although times were tough, her family always had enough to eat.

“Most of it was vegetables,” she wrote. “Most families had chickens, thus there were usually eggs. If not, there was always a neighbor willing to trade a dozen or two for a pound of butter, or whatever you had they could use. Most of us had at least one milk cow or goat to provide us with milk and cream — thus we had butter and cottage cheese.

“We had enough clothes,” Betty said, “but no extras or frills. We usually ordered most things from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward, and waited anxiously for our faithful mailman to deliver our package. Our rural carrier was an important person in our lives then, and was known personally by all his patrons.”

One holiday season, the carrier, a man named Aaron Simpson, demonstrated true Christmas spirit to Betty and her family.

Betty’s mother had ordered a new winter coat for her by mail, hoping she could get it in time for the school Christmas program. The family waited anxiously as the days slipped by. The day before Christmas, her mother waited at the mailbox, but there was no package.

“There was nothing to do but wear my old one,” Betty said, “which was too short, and quite worn.”

As darkness approached, the family got ready to leave for the school. “A car came down the road,” Betty recalled, “its headlights sweeping through our living room as it pulled into the driveway.” A man climbed out and headed for the house, carrying a package. “Yes, it was Aaron bringing my Christmas coat,” Betty said, “a more welcome sight than Santa himself.”

The postman had returned to the post office and discovered the late-arriving package. “Before going home for a warm meal and a long-awaited rest, he climbed back into his car and brought me my coat just in time for me to wear it to the school play.”

Betty’s dad worked at a grain elevator in town, and walked to work. His route took him by an abandoned house and a well covered with a few old boards. During the winter, snow and ice made the commute dangerous, especially on the return trip in the winter darkness. Worried that he would stumble and fall into the well, Betty and her mother determined to buy him a flashlight for Christmas.

“Every evening we would sit by the window with the lamp lit to help guide him to our home,” Betty wrote. “We would strain our eyes for the first sight of him moving slowly toward us. Then with a sigh of relief, Mom would go about getting his hot supper on the table. We decided he must have a flashlight.”

On Christmas Eve Betty and her mother took up their vigil at the window, their small gift neatly wrapped. Time dragged on and they both began to worry, fearing the man had stumbled and fallen into the well. “We waited, and prayed,” Betty wrote.

Finally, Betty’s mother could stand it no longer. She put on her coat, unwrapped the flashlight, and started for the door to look for her husband.

“But just then,” Betty wrote, “we caught sight of a small bobbing light moving across the field toward us. We sat and watched in disbelief as it approached. What a relief he was home, but there was a tinge of disappointment there too, as Dad stomped the snow from his feet, then burst through the door with a big smile on his face.

‘Now don’t be made cause I’m late,’ he said, ‘but I know how you two worry, so I stopped at the hardware store and bought me a flashlight for Christmas.’”

* * *

My personal recollections of Christmas on the farm in the 1940s include the annual trek my dad and I would make to a nearby farm for a Christmas tree. The farmer was an old man, short and bent, who smoked an ancient pipe. Everyone called him Old Roy. The pipe went out frequently, and he was continually relighting it with wooden matches that he carried in the breast pocket of his tattered overalls.

Old Roy shucked corn for my dad in the days before we acquired a mechanical corn picker. Once, while throwing an ear into the wagon, his pipe got in the way, and he accidentally threw it in with the corn.

All work stopped while Old Roy searched for the pipe, which was as much a part of his persona as his nose. Dad was generous with Old Roy, giving him extra corn for the few animals he raised, and the old man was glad to let us cut one of his trees at Christmastime.

Until I was 8 years old, my dad farmed with horses. Hitching the team to a farm wagon, Dad would take me to Old Roy’s farm about a week before Christmas. The farm was small and hardscrabble — small, cultivated patches, but mostly woodland on rolling hills. Cedar trees of various sizes poked through the snow in the hills behind Roy’s house and barn.

It didn’t take long to select a tree, load it on the wagon and take it to our farm about a mile away. We’d bring it into the house, where my mother would have a 3-gallon pottery crock ready in the corner of the living room. Dad trimmed the lower branches and we positioned the tree in the crock, which was then filled with water, along with some rocks to hold it steady. The water would keep the tree fresh for weeks, filling the house with the aroma of cedar.

Decorating the tree was tricky – and painful. The cedar was sticky and scratchy, and decorations had to be applied with care. We had some old ornaments that had been in the family for years — mostly glass, papier-mâché and tinfoil, as I remember. My mother always had a supply of icicles, which she carefully placed on the tree so they hung down vertically like the real thing. No throwing them on to avoid the sticky branches. A string of lights with large bulbs would be retrieved from an old box, along with a somewhat frayed angel that always went on top of the tree.

We also had some small wreaths with candle-like bulbs that would be placed in the living room windows. At night, the windows and tree lights gave the house a nice glow when the other lights were turned off. There was also a papier-mâché Santa Claus that sat atop the Philco console we gathered around in the evenings to hear Christmas music.

After Christmas, the tree would come down, to become food for birds and “ditch filler” in the pasture behind the barn. But while it shared our home, it became an aromatic centerpiece for our holidays.

When I grew up and had a family of my own, I continued the tradition — but the trees were never cedars. However, I still have the papier-mâché Santa, and a few of the original ornaments.

Some old-time holiday recipes

Many Christmases of long ago began in the kitchen. Recipes for special “comfort foods” and dessert treats that were stored away during the year were brought out and prepared with loving care for Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers.

Archived in the Discover files are numerous recipes that were considered holiday faire. Here are some of the better ones:

Minnie L. Bird from Iowa City, IA, shared a “Corn and Oysters” recipe with our readers in 1991. “This is a good Thanksgiving or Christmas dish, but good anytime,” she wrote. “You’ll need a 2-quart baking dish.”

1 can cream style corn
Butter or oleomargarine
1 small can oysters
Soda crackers
Salt and pepper

In the bottom of a baking dish put a layer of crushed crackers and the liquor from the oysters. Then a layer of corn, layer of crackers — always use soda crackers — then the oysters. Then another layer of crackers. Finish with a layer of corn and a final layer of crackers.

Use enough milk to moisten the mixture. Dot with butter and bake one hour in a 350 oven or until brown. This recipe has been used for years.

Martha Stinson, North Kansas City, MO, sent us this recipe in 1990. “It has been in our family since the 1930s,” she wrote.

3/4 pound ground uncooked ham
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup tomato pulp
1/2 pound ground beef
1 1/2 tablespoon chopped onions
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup bread crumbs

Mix meats, add onion, salt and crumbs. Add tomato pulp, then beaten egg. Bake in loaf pan at 350 for one hour. Slice and place between whole wheat bread.

In 1989, Dawne Pyles, Overland Park, KS, sent two of her grandmother’s recipes that were used whenever their family gathered for holiday meals. “She was 83 years old when she died in 1965,” Dawne said. “She was of German descent, and lived in the Midwest all her life.”

1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1 medium potato
1 1/2 cup potato water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup baking molasses
1 egg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
About 7 cups flour

Sprinkle yeast in warm water and add 1/8 teaspoon sugar. Stir to dissolve. Boil potato and mash fine. Add 1 1/2 cups of the potato water. Stir well and let cool.

Put cornmeal in a bowl and scald with boiling water. Stir to avoid lumpiness. Let cool.

When the cornmeal has cooled, add shortening, sugar, molasses (should be dark), egg, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, salt and raisins. Add flour to make a workable dough. A little more or less than 7 cups is usual.

Knead dough just until smooth (not too much). Allow to rise in warm place until double in bulk. Punch down, make into suitable size loaf, or loaves, and let rise again until double in bulk.

Bake in a 350 oven for one hour — or until done — (time will vary with size of loaf).

2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup shortening
Dissolve 2 teaspoons soda into 1/4 cup of hot water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cloves

Grease cookie sheet. Using a large spoon, drop dough on cookie sheet to make fat cookies. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375 for 8 to 10 minutes.

Back in 1986, Sandy Bare, Olathe, KS, sent several festive recipes that should top off a holiday meal in style. All are traditional. (Caution — the drinks contain alcohol so use common sense or modify if your holiday gathering includes children or persons with alcohol problems.)

2 pints coffee ice cream
2 quarts eggnog
3 cups cold coffee
2 cups whiskey
1 pint whipped cream

Stir eggnog, coffee and whiskey into a chilled large punch bowl. Fold whipped cream into eggnog mixture. Place ice cream balls on top and sprinkle with the grated nutmeg. Serves 30 to 35 with 1/2 cup.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seed
1 cup vodka
4/5 quart burgundy wine
5 whole cloves
2-inch piece whole cinnamon
1 whole piece whole candied ginger
1/4 cup port wine
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds

Heat together sugar, raisins, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and vodka. (Do not boil). Add wine and heat for 30 minutes. (Do not boil). Add the almonds. Serve hot with spoon for eating fruit. Serves 8-10 (4 oz.)

For large batches, you may want to put spices and fruit in a spice cooking bag rather than eating. A 50- or 100-cup coffee maker works great for large crowds. (Use bag so spices don’t get caught in spout.)

2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 quart apple juice
1 cup rum
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
3-inch stick cinnamon

Bring all ingredients except rum, butter, and nutmeg to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, then strain. Add rum and stir over heat for 1 minute. Pour into mugs and top with 1 pat butter and dash of grated nutmeg. Serves 8 (8 oz.)


Cut skin of chestnut with knife in shape of cross to allow steam to escape when roasting. Put in shallow pan (or in popcorn popper over open fire in your fireplace.) Roast in 350 oven for 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, peel and eat. A fun treat from merry olde England.

Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at

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