Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas for a Sharecropper's Orphan: The Salvation Army, Then and Now

The 1920's - "the Roaring Twenties" - was a boom time, much like the 1980's or the 2000's, the communications and manufacturing revolution was going on, prohibition stoked a powerful illicit economy, lots of people had money and the stock market saw massive inputs from young, inexperienced traders. Many fortunes were being made - in theory. Mostly, the money was available for people engaged in emerging industries or occupations, or who were dishonest enough to be smugglers or distillers. Those in traditional occupations continued to live much as they had for the prior 50 years.

My grandfather's family were poor during this time. There were 8 children in the family, and Nandy was in the middle. Nandy's father was a share-cropper in East Texas and Southern Oklahoma.

At that time - around 1900 through until 1940 - seventy per cent of all farmers in the whole region were share croppers. Race had nothing to do with it - then as now, money, effort, ingenuity and plain luck were the deciding factors between poverty and wealth. People who could not afford to buy land worked for those who did. Everyone I have ever known who was born before 1935 picked cotton at some time in their lives.

This is Nandy's story of Christmas when he was 8 years old in 1922, and the part The Salvation Army played in it. While other "charities" have forgotten their mission, only The Salvation Army still focuses on precisely the same people & needs they always did.

From "Precious Memories" by Sidney Gilstrap:

"We finally arrived in East Texas [in 1921] and stayed at Grandma and Pappy Bruton's until Papa could find a "share-crop" farm for us to live on. A Share-crop farm is one that the owner furnishes the farming tools and buys all the seed to plant a crop with. A share-crop farmer is one who works the farm, planting, plowing, and harvesting the crop. He also takes care of the farm, such as clearing land, building fences and things like this. All profits are shared half to the owner and the other half to the farmer. This and a house to live in is the farmer's pay. The better the crop, the better the pay.

"Papa had to clear nearly all the land of trees and underbrush. Most of this was done with an ax and crosscut saw. There were no such things as chain saws. It was all done the hard way, by hand. The larger trees were cut for firewood for cooking and heating. There was no such thing as natural gas, propane or electricity, especially in the country.

"Our new home was a three room house (almost new), with a porch all across the front... Our house was located on the West side of East Mountain, right at the foot of it. There was a small creek about 200 feet between our house and the mountain. It had little waterfalls and was spring fed. This was our water supply as there was no well at the house.

[After about a year in East Texas, the family moved back to Cornish (near Ringling) Oklahoma, and Papa found another farm to share crop.]

"In the Spring, Papa was plowing and getting the ground ready for planting. Back then, it was done with horses pulling a plow and the farmer walking behind the plow and guiding it. Nothing but old hard work for a farmer in those days. One morning the weather was cold and misty and Papa worked until about noon. He came to the house with chills and fever that developed into pneumonia. Old Dr. Dorsey came (by horse and buggy) but he couldn't help Papa. This was on April 13, 1922. ...

"I remember Papa as kind, gentle, pleasant, and a hard worker. He would kid with us and we always had a good time when he was around. We missed him for a long time....

[His mom then took the children and moved to Denison, where she had family.]

"Mom got a job at a peanut factory and Lester [older brother] and I got us a job selling papers in the afternoons. [In the summer when school was out] we would also go down to the Farmers Market and get vegetables and cantalopes to carry up and down the streets to sell. We had to carry them in tow sacks. We would get a percentage of what we sold. Sometimes we sold some and sometimes we didn't.

"Mom's job didn't last long, so she got another one at the cotton mill. They made cloth out of cotton. We moved to the other side of town [close to] the factory and close to school too.

"We spent our first Christmas without Papa there and it looked like it would be just another day. We were just barely getting by and nothing to spend for Christmas. We all knew that. On Christmas morning, I went out on the front porch. I couldn't believe what I saw. There were two large boxes with all kinds of goodies, toys, clothing and food in them. No one could have made me believe that there was no Santa Claus.

"I found out, later, it was the Salvation Army that brought our Christmas to us. I still have a very warm spot in my heart for them. They are still helping families like we were. In those days [1922], there was no such thing as welfare, food stamps, Social Security, WIC, AFDC, or any kind of government assistance for the needy."

And today, 90 years later, the Salvation Army stills puts its first interest into sheltering people no one else will help, and giving needy people a real Christmas. The Salvation Army is the only organization all over the country that provides transient men a safe and warm place to sleep for a couple of days. They also help with disaster aid, work therapy, locator services to reunite families with loved ones, meals, and many many other essential daily needs.

They don't pay their administrators outrageous salaries and they don't do it for publicity.

When we went through Hurricane Claudette, the Salvation Army helped us and our neighbors. The hurricane was stronger than expected, and by the time it was over on Monday the area looked like a war zone. Power was out everywhere, many were without water too, and several of our neighbors' homes had been destroyed.

The Salvation Army showed up in our tiny beach community on Wednesday morning and fed hot, cooked meals three times a day for the rest of the week until power was restored and everyone had decent living arrangements.

They refused to take a single dime for the food, made no test of need, and would not even accept donations. They were the only outside group to help our community. None of the "famous" organizations or agencies came, not even to look around.

So we put money in every bell ringer's pot, going in and coming out. They've been there for us, and we want to be there for them.

God Bless the Salvation Army.

*Photo: "Papa, Mom, and Rosalie" (Thomas Lester Gilstrap, Minnie Lee Bruton Gilstrap, and youngest daughter Rosalie).


  1. Great story Tina!

    I'll make a point to put some more in the Salvation Army jar this year.


  2. What a touching story! It's a pity that so few today realize how hard things used to be, not all that long ago, and how easy it is now.

    I too have a soft spot for the Salvos- knew several in the Army personally, when I lived in Australia, and they were exactly as you've said. They're a good bunch, and I'm making a good donation to them too.

    Thanks for sharing that!



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