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Discovering the real value of Christmas

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

This is a firsthand account from an individual who lived the depression years of the 1930s and '40s. He describes how surviving those lean times meant working closely with neighbors, friends and family. These are the early memories of Bernie McMellon, who discovered the rewards of family unity at a time when there was little to go around.

"I was born in Barboursville (in 1926) and well remember those lean depression years of the 1930s," said McMellon. "My grandfather operated a grist mill and blacksmith business during those years. Even though times were difficult, he managed to stay busy. By the time I was seven, I had started helping Granddad with his operation in the grist mill. I remember the winter of 1933 as being colder than usual. No one had much to spend, but the grist mill stayed busy. Granddad charged two scoops of grain from each bushel of whatever was being ground. When the poor came to have their wheat ground, granddad would signal me by dusting off his cloak, this meant to not charge them. That was his Christmas gift to them."

The grist mill of granddad Thomas P. McMellon was located right before heading into Hamlin. Just across the highway was an old country store ran by Mogg Cooper. The few times young McMellon remembers being in that store made a lasting impression on his mind. He recalled rows of large barrels containing various items that customers might need. Hand-written paper signs hanging from the walls displayed prices of various items, quart size glass bottles full of motor oil, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mail Pouch tobacco, the sweet smelling candy counter, and his first taste ever of orange Nehi soda.

"Granddad always bought candy at that store," said McMellon. "Candy for me was an extra reward for my help. Gramps always gave candy to the poor kids who came to the grist mill with their parents. He was so concerned for those that were not well dressed against the cold. He would often pick up a child and put them next to the blacksmith's forge fire while he worked the mill or repaired a wagon part."

Working at the grist mill with his granddad during the Christmas holidays was especially memorable on Christmas eve. That's when he would go home with his granddad. Grandmother always had the dinner table full with the wonders of the season. Smoked ham, sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables from the garden, rolls, and his favorite dish of all, fried chicken. And of course, there was the ever popular mince pie. After the meal, they would pack everything up, and take their grandson home in preparation for Christmas day.

"For as long as I can remember. my grandparents always spent Christmas at our house," said McMellon. "The meal my mother prepared on that special day was always a display of her best talents from the kitchen. We were fortunate to enjoy the basics of life. Presents for us kids usually consisted of some new clothes, and fresh oranges and apples. Only on rare occasions were toys found under the tree."

McMellon talked about the years in Barboursville before moving to Ona in 1936. Because they didn't live too far from the railway tracks, their home became a popular location for people jumping off the train to ask for a handout or a few hours work.

"My mother told me that they weren't really hobos," said McMellon. "Just poor people from the coal communities who were hungry. Mom always gave them something for a few hours of pulling weeds. We would often see them slip a turnip or potato into their pocket, while working in the garden. Mom never said a thing to any of them about it."

Every Christmas was always special for the McMellon family, Not because of presents, but because of the bounty of food that was always prepared. Even the prized Christmas tree always came from deep within the winter forest. Popcorn was strung together with long pieces of string to wrap around the tree. Peanuts still in the hull were dipped in red and green food coloring and then dried before hanging them on the tree.

Beside the cracking fireplace in the living room, playing seasonal songs, was the battery powered Philco radio. Even the lighting at their farm home in Ona was battery powered.

"Farm life was always busy," said McMellon. "Cattle, horses and pigs needed extra care in the winter. Springtime meant plowing and caring for newborn animals. Summer was filled with care for the crops and fall was for gathering and storing away the harvest for winter. By November, most of the hard work was done. Next came Thanksgiving, and hog killing time. It was my job to keep the fire smoldering in the smoke house where the hams hung to be cured. That fire burned continuous for six weeks straight."

Each fall, the McMellon children and neighboring kids would hitch their horse to a sled and go through the apple orchard collecting the fruit for preparation to make apple butter. The neighbors would all gather for the affair which lasted the entire night. They also made molasses, which, according to McMellon was a whole lot more work. Soon, it became time for another trip to the woods for that just right Christmas tree.

"By mid-December each year, the Christmas decorations were in place." said McMellon. "Winter always returned with the beauty that only snow provides, and my two brothers and I spent most of our free time outside on our homemade sleds. Every year, mom always made snow cream from ordinary old snow that she flavored with berry or peach juice from our orchard. Real ice cream was something we seldom had."

The Christmas tradition for the McMellon family continued on with the holidays of 1941. Right up until Dec. 23. That's when their home burnt completely to the ground. They lost everything but the clothes they wore running from the house.

That's when another miracle of the season was born. Neighbors did what neighbors do. They took in a child here, another there, found clothing, and provided comfort. It was one Christmas that a 15-year-old boy, and the rest of his family realized that the season was more than simple gifts. It was a time of caring for others and sharing what God had provided.

That Christmas, the McMellon family, along with all their neighbors did as they do every week, walk the short distance down the road to attend church.

Construction began on the new home before the ashes had cooled on the old one. In less than one month, the new home was complete -- with the neighbors help of course.

Clyde Beal is an area freelance writer in need of common ordinary everyday family stories. If you have a special collection, hobby, smart pet, or a collection of north American June Bugs you want to show off, write him at archie350@frontier.com.