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Sweet Christmas

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Editor’s Note: This is a fictional account of a Christmas long ago.

I’m a very elderly woman now, 98-years-old to be exact. Lined up behind me are precious sentinel memories of a far distant youth. Sweetest of all, though, are those of the Christmas of my 9th year, when Fort Collins children of the Depression became candy makers.

(Late September 1933)



“Tillie! Tillie Anne Gray!” came the shout that spun me around.

There, wildly running towards me, was my FORMER best friend, Emma Meyer. When her speeding feet and even faster gasps for breath caught up to me, apologies began dripping from her lips.



“I’m sorry… I called you… selfish, Tillie. I really am. Please… forgive me, please,” Emma huffed, puffed, whined and whimpered.

The Great Depression, as my parents called those days, was anything but great for most people. And I knew, with all the wisdom and certainty 9-year-olds possess, that I wasn’t selfish, just frugal. Frugality was considered a virtuous necessity back then.

“Well,” I cautiously placated Emma, “I guess I forgive you. But it was the only carrot I had in my lunchbox.”

“You’re right,” my redeemed best friend agreed with a nod of her generously freckled face. “I’d have eaten the whole thing too, if it’d been mine. I’m really sorry I took a bite of your lovely carrot. Anyway, I found an awesome apple on the way home from school!”

”Where?” I asked.

“On a tree,” Emma replied with a grin.

The only apple tree between home and school was on the Kurnell estate. The place belonged to the richest people in town. Even though it was a super short cut filled with opportunities for grand adventure, it was strictly taboo. Parents warned their children to stay off rich people’s land, figuring if anything came up broken or missing, poor kids would be the No. 1 suspects. And now Emma had gone and proven it!

During the Great Depression, very few houses were as grand and immense as was that of the Miles Kurnell Estate. “Ours would’ve fit inside five times over!” Tillie Anne Gray had guessed. Photo by Marty Metzger
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“You stole from the Kurnells! Are you nuts?” I screeched.

Hands on her hips, lips pursed, Emma glared.

“No I did not steal. I just saved one little apple from getting all bruised falling to the ground. Then no one would’ve eaten it, except worms,” she alibied, sniffed and added, “So, I think I’m a hero.”

Emma was a year older than I and always tried to convince me she was also one year smarter.

“Heroine, not hero,” I corrected, “and even heroines get in trouble, like Joan of Arc.” Then, Emma duly dethroned from her self-appointed nobility, we parted ways and went home.

LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE

Two weeks later, that very same apple tree set in motion a chain of events that would forever change our lives.

I was supposed to walk straight down to Wolfer’s Market to buy a bag of flour and some salt for my mother. No dawdling, she’d said. Even though we could sometimes afford the 7 cents for a loaf of bread, Mother preferred to bake her own.

“I was supposed to walk straight down to Wolfer’s Market to buy a bag of flour and some salt for my mother. ‘No dawdling’, she’d said.” Photo of Wolfer’s Market at 137 S. College, circa 1930, from UHPC, University Archive, Archives and Special Collections, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.
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Emma’s apple incident must’ve been a bad influence on me because I suddenly found myself ducking through the ragged hole in the Kurnells’ back fence. I had no intention of stealing an apple, just to see if any were left on the tree. There weren’t; all picked. But what a grand tree it was, perfect for a Saturday morning climb, and… up I went.

“Look at that view!” I thought aloud as I craned my neck to and fro. “I can see all around the whole Kurnell place and clear to the Poudre!”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the owner of this tree. Mr. Miles Kurnell had walked right up to its base, unseen by my keen eye.

“Great view, eh young lady?” his voice boomed, nearly sending me crashing to his feet.

“Whoa, girl, steady,” he laughed. “Sorry to startle you.”

Face burning with guilt and fear, I crawled down the branches and slid to ground that I wished would swallow me up.

“I, I’m sorry, Mr. Kurnell,” I stammered, my head hanging in shame. “I was just, just… I’m sorry.”

“For what?” he asked. “Why, if I was younger and spryer, I’d also scramble up this splendid tree. Was I right? Is there a great view from up there?”

“Uh, mmhm,” I mumbled. “I think I saw the river. But I wasn’t stealing apples, honest,” I explained the obvious, since none were left.

Mr. Kurnell read my mind. “Of course not. We picked them all. I’m back for my ladder but guess my boy already came and got it,” he explained. “And why would you steal an apple anyway?”

I swallowed hard, blushing with unfamiliar chagrin. “Because I haven’t had an apple for a long time, sir,” I said. “We can’t really afford much fruit these days.”

Then Mr. Kurnell also blushed, but I didn’t know why.

“Oh, I see,” he quietly answered. “Come with me to the house, young lady. Maybe I can find you an apple or two. Do you have a brother or sister?”

“Uh, both, sir; a brother Wally, he’s 7, and my sister, Becky. She’s 5,” I hesitantly replied, briefly wondering if he planned to throw all of us in jail.

“Maybe I can round up three apples then,” Mr. Kurnell amended his offer.

Inside the huge, elegant home I shuffled along like a bedraggled rag doll behind my impromptu host. Awed, I gaped at the grand furnishings in the immense house. Ours would’ve fit inside five times over, I’d guessed.

Once in the kitchen, a pretty, smiling woman and a boy about 13 greeted us. Mr. Kurnell introduced his wife, Annie, and their son, Peter.

“And this young lady is… say, honey, I didn’t get your name,” he apologized.

Now feeling much more like a real guest than the trespasser I actually was, I clearly declared, “I’m Tillie, Tillie Anne Gray.”

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“Tillie, yes. I invited Tillie in for three apples. She’ll share them with her brother and sister,” Mr. Kurnell explained as he placed the delicious red spheres in a paper bag. It was then that I noticed Mrs. Kurnell and Peter stirring something in big bowls.

“What are you cooking, ma’am?” I asked, up on my tiptoes trying to peer over the counter and in at the ingredients.

Mrs. Kurnell crooked a finger to motion me over. The sticky concoction looked like gold or jewels to my treat-starved eyes.

“Candy!” I shrieked shrill as an owl. “Oh, candy! How wonderful!”

“Yes, dear,” Annie Kurnell affirmed. “I start making it about this time every year for the Holidays. It stores quite well.”

I knew it was rude to stare, yet there I stood, the most impolite child ever, gawking with bulging eyes and an unapologetically covetous heart.

“Say, Tillie,” Mrs. Kurnell interrupted my boorish gaze, “would you like to learn to make candy?”

”Me? Oh, yes, yes!” I yelped.

“Next Saturday then, dear,” Mrs. Kurnell said as she continued stirring the sugary treasure, “if your mother gives her permission. And, if you like, you may bring along a friend or two.”

Mother scolded me a bit about forgetting to go to Wolfer’s but joyously welcomed the apples, which turned out to be a whole dozen. She allowed me to go to the Kurnells’ especially, I think, because I’d invited Wally and Emma.

CANDY MAKING

That Saturday was such fun — and so delicious — that it became an ongoing event. Our little group grew, too, first adding Ellen, Emma’s 12-year-old sister, and their brother, 8-year-old Graham. The next week, my and Emma’s friend Clare Hutchins and my cousin Ruth Vickers joined us.

Every Saturday through early December, my gang, Peter and his mother spent two to three hours making all kinds of candy. I finally asked what she’d do with it all, minus the many handfuls we’d voraciously sampled.

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“I’ve been giving that a lot of thought,” Mrs. Kurnell replied. “Why, I’ve never made this much before, far more than I have use for. But I do have an idea, Tillie.”

What an idea it was! We all agreed to keep it a secret and spent the following Saturday wrapping and decorating packages of candy. There were chocolates, caramels, brittle and rainbows of lollipops.

The week before Christmas, we’d pile into the Kurnells’ huge auto and Clare’s father’s truck to deliver the sweets. We’d sing carols as we went. The recipients would be all the children we knew. We figured we’d need to go to 37 houses and would spend the better part of our school holiday driving around. We were so excited and practiced our singing as we wrapped candy.

My little sister, Becky, was too young to help much in making the confections but came along to package it. She chattered non-stop the whole time.

“Tillie, why don’t we have an auto, like the Kurnells do?” she questioned.

I sighed and answered, “We used to have one until Papa lost his job. Then he sold the car. Besides, gasoline being 10 cents a gallon, he said he couldn’t afford to drive it anyway.”

“Peter Kurnell says he’s going to go to college when he’s older. What’s college, Tillie?” Becky rattled on.

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“It’s a big, fancy school where rich kids learn how to become richer. Now be quiet and wrap faster,” I silenced her; or so I thought.

“Will you ever be rich, Tillie?” she asked.

With another sigh I said, “Probably not, but if I was rich, I’d buy you a little muzzle.”  I chuckled, certain that insult would stop her.

“Hooray! What’s a muzzle?”

CANDY DELIVERY DAY

I awoke early the day we were to begin our deliveries, leapt out of bed and shook Wally awake in the bed next to mine. Becky was still snoring under our covers as I threw open the drapes to let in blinding light, a definite way to rouse the two sleepyheads.

To my horror, all I saw outside was snow. With white fury, wafer-size flakes fell or were whipped into drifts by a raging wind. I knew the Kurnells’ vehicle would never get through all that and Clare’s truck, a temperamental beast, probably wouldn’t even start.

But I couldn’t let Mrs. Kurnell’s grand plan fail. We’d all worked far too hard for that. Besides, our school friends would miss out on the Christmas surprise we had for them!

I quickly pulled on every under and outer garment I could fit into, raced out the door and over to Emma’s. She and Ellen were also dressed and ready to go; but where, and how?

None of us had telephones back then so we trudged through King Kong-sized piles toward the Kurnell place. By now, Wally had caught up (little Becky cried to go but Mama wouldn’t let her) and we all eventually arrived at the mansion, looking like an army of walking snow people.

As we thawed and melted at the fireplace, we worried about the plan. Mr. Kurnell wasn’t in the house when we arrived so all we could do was worry. When he finally came in, he announced the snow had quit and that we were to bundle back up and load up.

“But there must be more than a foot of snow on the road by now,” I pointed out. “Your automobile won’t get through it.”

“Come along, children, and have faith,” brave Mr. Kurnell assured us.

When we stepped out the door, my eyes got as large as snowballs. There before me was the grandest, biggest sleigh I’d ever seen, pulled by two stunningly beautiful, dappled grey Percherons, adorned in shiny black harnesses with red trim and jingle bells.

“My trusty team will get us through,” declared Mr. Kurnell, proudly introducing us to Beauty and Dolly. I petted the gentle giants, whose thick winter hair was long and silky.

A dappled grey Percheron, possibly one of Beauty or Dolly’s descendants. Photo by Marty Metzger
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Then Mr. Kurnell directed us aboard, covered our laps and legs with pretty wool and horsehair sleigh robes, and tucked boxes of candy packages in all around us.

Mrs. Kurnell stayed home but Peter came along and told me that his father loved driving the team far more than his Ford, so the snow was really a big, big blessing.

I was delighted that kind Mr. Kurnell was incredibly blessed, which he remained for three days. On each of those blue-white days we took the team and sleigh out to complete our caroling and candy deliveries. Everyone we visited was thrilled and even their neighbors who heard the sleigh bells and singing came outside to listen and sing along.

For me, best of all were the children’s squeals of joy and leaps in the air upon getting their candy. Some were so young that perhaps they’d never before had any. Not one single piece!

At the end of our final delivery day, Mr. Kurnell drove the sleigh over to Wolfer’s Market. Peter held Beauty and Dolly’s lines while his father went inside for a long time. When he came back out, two stockboys accompanied him carrying many, many bags and boxes, which they loaded up.

“What’s all that?” Wally nosily asked.

“Wally! How impolite!” I scolded. “It’s none of our business.”

”Oh, but it is,” Mr. Kurnell corrected me.

And as he drove us home it was with the boxes and bags filled with fruits, vegetables and a huge turkey for each of our families. Never had I seen such a banquet as what we ate on Christmas Day 1933!  And never before had Fort Collins been so sweet a city.

Eight years later, when Peter Kurnell came home from college, he and I began dating.  We married two years later and had four children, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

We raised fine Percheron draft horses and dairy cows. After World War II, Peter invested in one of the first passenger airlines in the area. And, yes, we were quite wealthy (but I never did buy Becky her little muzzle). Still, I know I never felt richer than over Christmas 1933, when my friends and I became candy makers.

 

1928 Lollipop Recipe

½ cup sugar

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/8 teas. cream of tartar

¾ cup water

food coloring

10 drops flavoring

Slowly boil the sugar, corn syrup, cream of tartar and water together without stirring until it reaches 310 degrees Fahrenheit or forms a ball in cold water. Remove from heat. Add flavoring and coloring to suit. Shape mixture into drops or lollipops on waxed paper or greased sheet.

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