published: February 27th 2017
Christmas in Texas back during what came to be called “the panic of ‘06" was a bit more austere than the holidays have been of late.
My late granddad L.A. Wilke, told me about a decidedly Dickinson-esque Christmas Eve he experienced as a boy in 1906.
Money was tight back then, and as the oldest of five kids, my Grandfather did not expect to get much of anything for Christmas. His dad was a hard-working man who in the 1880s had been among the laborers who helped build the state Capitol. (He was a paid worker, not part of the convicts impressed into stone cutting by the Texas prison system.) But no matter how hard someone is capable of working, that honorable ethic doesn't do a man -- or his family -- much good if few jobs are to be had and money is scarce. And in 1906, that was the case.
But some time that evening of Dec. 24, his father left their modest house in what is now called Central Austin. The son of an early Fredericksburg settler, it was my great-grandfather, Adolph Wil-ke’s habit to occasionally drop by Scholtz’ Beer Garten on San Jacinto Street to buy some sausage and a bucket of beer to go. The term “to go,” of course, had not yet been coined. And health laws have long since precluding the selling of beer by the bucket.
When he got home, however, he was not toting beer or sausage. Instead, he carried a large lard can lid nearly as big around as a wagon wheel.
Inside the their small frame house, the second-generation German-Texan presented his children with a family-size gingerbread boy, fresh from the Lundberg Bakery on Congress Avenue. (The old building still stands at 1006 Congress.)
As Granddad later told it, when he and his younger sisters and brother lit into that hot gingerbread, they thought they were having a pretty fine Christmas despite the nation’s financial slump. That night further helped him come to understand that Christmas giving is not at all about the price or extent of the gift, but everything about the spirit in which it is given.
More than a half-century later, my mother struggled to come up with a gift idea for her father, someone who at that stage of his career, thanks to his own hard work, “the man who has everything.” At some point, she remembered Granddad’s story of the Christmas gingerbread boy he and his siblings got in the early 1900s. And that gave her an idea.
Letting her fingers do the walking, she located a business firm in Austin willing to give her a metal barrel lid that would pass as a large lard can top. Then she baked a Texas-size gingerbread boy and delivered it to Granddad atop that lid, fresh from the oven.
I was there, hoping Granddad might be willing to share an appendage or two from that hot treat. I don't remember for sure, but I expect he did. And I further suspect that he did so while trying to hid the tears in his eyes.
Unfortunately, I could not continue that family tradition with my mother. She was highly allergic to gingerbread!
Maybe while we were enjoying a glass of what Granddad called "sweet milk" and Gingerbread, he told me about another singular Christmas eve in his life.
In the early 1930s, the nation wracked by a financial crisis far more severe than that Panic of 1906, Granddad was city editor of the now defunct Fort Worth Press. No matter the relatively impressive title he held, the Scripps (later Scripps-Howard) newspaper chain did not shower its employees with money. He and the reporters on his staff worked hard for what little they did receive, and as unemployment rose and kept rising, they were darn happy to get what they did.
But now it was Christ-mas Eve, and with a wife and two girls, Granddad had no money to provide his family with much in the way of a festive holiday. With the final edition of that day's newspaper "put to bed," he left the Press building on Jones Street in downtown Cowtown and started walking toward his car.
Adding to his dispirit, a strong norther was blowing.
Headed toward his parking place, he pondered his situation. While intended to offer cheer, the holiday lights and bright store room windows downtown bespoke a Christmas he could not extend to his wife and the girls. Adding to the gloom of a short day turned to night even before supper time, the temperature was falling faster than the stock market had.
And then, not far from his car, something blowing along the sidewalk caught his eye. A keen-eyed longtime hunter and a highly observant journalist, he looked down to see a crumpled $5 bill blowing his way.
Snatching it up, he looked around. No one was anywhere near. Whoever that bill had belonged to was long gone. Putting the fiver in his empty money clip, he headed for Woolworth's. Thanks to a minor Christmas miracle, his girls would wake up Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus had managed to make it to their house despite the Depres-sion.
News, viewed as a commodity, is one of the few things that can go from interesting to stale to interesting again.
Consider some of the goings on in West Texas in December 1884 and Janu-ary 1885 as reported by the newly founded San Angelo Standard:
•"A passenger train was held up at the Orier station near the Pecos river by twenty cowboys. They placed cartridges on the track and fired volleys at the train. Seems they had just been paid off and were on a Christmas spree."
Commentary: Cowboys will be cowboys. Surely they were only having sport with passengers from back East. On the other hand, they might have needed some more beer money.
•"One of San Angelo's tailors, having a large lot of dude trousers left over, has made them into gun scabbards. All the alteration that was necessary was to sew up one end."
Commentary: Mae West would have had fun with that one. (Hint: "Is that a pistol in your pocket?")
•"Scientists say we are indebted to Pompeii for canned fruit. Some jars of preserved figs were found in a lava-covered house. The contents were so good that fruit canning was introduced the next year in the United States."
Commentary: In addition to the figs, archeologists found packages of Twinkies.
•"In 1900, the likelihood is that the census will show a population of six million for Texas. Future presidents are being born in Texas at the present moment."
Commentary: Nah, Texas would only have three million-plus residents in 1900. But that presidential prediction was only off by six years. Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th president, was born in Denison on Oct. 14, 1890.
•"San Angelo should be incorporated. The streets in the additions run almost at right angles with those in town, and it will cost much less to straighten them now than it will in years hence."
Commentary: Another 19 years would go by before San Angelo's incorporation in 1903. The city now has some 660 lane miles of paved streets.
•"Near Del Rio, an Englishman, a passenger on the Sunset train, with a long range rifle, shot and killed a deer. This at 2,000 yards from the train."
Commentary: While some rifles back then were capable of firing a lethal bullet 3,000 or more yards, hitting a deer at 2,000 yards was a heck of a shot. If the train was moving at the time, it's pretty hard to believe.
•"If we catch the son-of-a-gun that steals our wood, we will not send him to jail. Oh, no; we will only start a first class funeral with him, that's all."
Commentary: Priced a cord of firewood lately?
•"Buffalo are still being found in goodly numbers on the desert of Texas and New Mexico, or the Llano Estacado."
Commentary: West Texans may have thought the American bison was still abundant, but years of unregulated hunting had considerably thinned the herds. In only a few more years, they were just about gone.
•"Several days ago Abilene was thrown into a fever of excitement by discovering that a supposed young man, recently arrived, was a female. She was arrested at the time and fined for the offense of wearing male attire."
Commentary: No comment...ary.
•"Thirty [railroad] cars of tools, suitable for railroad building, belonging to the Santa Fe road have arrived at Lampasas. It is said the workmen will begin work with their faces toward Tom Green county."
Commentary: The Santa Fe reached San Angelo on Sept. 30, 1888. Passenger service continued until 1965.
•"Three inches of snow fell on Thursday night. On Friday, sleigh-riding and snow-balling were prevailing diversions. One of the sleighs resembled a kitchen table turned upside down."
Commentary: Average annual snowfall in San Angelo is one inch.
•"If all the fruit trees brought in for the last couple of weeks, grow as well as they say, we will have a regular forest around San Angelo in a few years."
Commentary: San Angelo residents are still waiting on that forest.
•"There is a store with some limburger cheese that does not need advertising. When the wind blows from that side we have to use the back alley and make a detour to get to our boarding house."
Commentary: Limbur-ger cheese comes in sealed packages these days. But best to hold your breath when a cattle truck goes by.
•"San Angelo is very much in need of a calaboose into which petty offenders can be placed. The new jail is only large enough to hold the most desperate desperadoes."
Commentary: Some things don't change. The Tom Green County jail has beds for 449 occupants. In the spring of 2015 the lockup was operating at 99 percent capacity.
Back in the early 1920s, a dead squirrel was as negotiable as coins or paper money in the Big Thicket.
And given his prowess with a rifle, Sim Collins knew he'd never go hungry. Sure, the law might catch up with him some day, but if he had his Winchester with him, he didn't figure on going to jail.
Born Jan. 29, 1875, Collins grew up in the thicket. As Joe Richards recalled in "Another Keechi Kreak," his second book of recollections, Collins knew the Thicket "from top to bottom, inside out and wrong side up.
Having come to manhood in a stand of timber where deer, turkey, squirrel and even mountain lions and black bears were plentiful, Sims had learned to put a bullet where he wanted it to go. A friendly merchant in Livingston would accept a squirrel, or a mess of them, from Collins in exchange for staples. Most of the squirrels tendered as "currency" would have been hit in their eye with a .22 round so as not to damage any meat.
According to Richards, one day the merchant was taken aback when Collins brought in a squirrel that had its left front leg missing. While a human might have survived such a wound, the squirrel had not. When the merchant chided his customer for missing his standard eye shot, Collins replied, clearly affronted: "That's all I could see!"
No matter a man's proficiency with a rifle, the law's the law. Collins did something that resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest and the Polk County sheriff's office knew they had to bring him in from the Thicket. But they also realized how well Collins knew the Thicket. The only reasonable way to find him would be through a snitch.
Someone had been taking the wanted man supplies from town, and that someone began to get nervous that he could go to jail for harboring a criminal. His reluctance to give up a friend watered down by a decided lack of interest in going to jail, the man finally went to Sheriff John McCloud to report Collins' whereabouts.
The sheriff turned to two of his best deputies, both future Texas Rangers, to lead a posse to go after Collins. One was Roscoe Holiday, who later served as Polk County sheriff before joining the Rangers. The other was Hardy Purvis, who would rise through the Rangers to the rank of captain. His son one day also would wear the cinco peso Ranger badge.
The two lawmen and other officers approached Sims' hiding place after dark. As they moved quietly toward him through the timber, they could see him sitting cross-legged next to a campfire, his rifle in his lap.
"Get 'em up, Sim, we've got you covered," Purvis yelled.
Before saying anything, Purvis had dropped to one knee and sighted his rifle on Collins. Holiday and the other officers also had the man in their sights.
Collins, of course, had no intention of surrendering. Other officers in the posse later said it sounded like only one rifle went off, but Purvis reacted so quickly when Collins raised his rifle and fired that he pulled the trigger at almost the same moment.
Both men had well-deserved reputations as dead shots, but both men missed, at least in a manner of speaking. Collins' bullet hit Purvis in his leg above his knee and exited near his hip. Purvis's slug, surely intended for Collins' heart, slammed into the right side of his chest, just missing the vital organ. Though seriously wounded, it didn't stop Collins from shooting at the officers until he emptied his rifle.
Meanwhile, a couple more bullets hit the gunman, neither where they needed to be to put him down for good. In fact, when the lawmen ran up to him, Collins was struggling to get his pistol out of its holster.
No matter that he had three bullets in him, Collins survived the shootout. So did Purvis, though his wound left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life.
Purvis went on to join the Rangers in 1927 and served until 1933. He rejoined the law enforcement agency two years later and wore the Ranger badge until his 1956 retirement. At the time, he was a captain stationed in Houston. He died in 1961.
The excellent squirrel hunter but so-so gunfighter who gave Purvis his lasting limp got convicted and sent to Huntsville. No matter that he'd shot a peace officer, Collins time in the joint lasted only until the election of Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson. She pardoned him along with hundreds of other felons.
Collins lived until May 9, 1951. He's buried in Peeble's Cemetery in Polk County. In the same cemetery, not far away, rests the lawman who wouldn't have become a ranger if Collins had gotten off a better shot that distant night in the Big Thicket.