Backroads

Thanksgiving cards from a century ago reflected relief that the war and pandemic had ended and a hopeful abundance in the coming decade. A survey of Bell County newspapers revealed divided attitudes and images of Thanksgiving, partly due to the weariness from war along with the changing cultural shift.

At last, everyone could take a deep breath and sigh a thankful sigh. Maybe the beginning of a new decade could portend new beginnings and happier days.

Thanksgiving 1920 would be a time for people to gather without fear of disease or bloodshed.

Certainly, the most recent years had not been happy ones — a great war, a worldwide pandemic that killed millions, unemployment, food shortages and — according to some — national prohibition against anything alcoholic. That and passage of the 19th Amendment giving women rights to cast votes made Bell Countians wonder, “What else could go wrong?”

The Temple Daily Telegram waggishly advised, “You can get the flavor of brandy in a Thanksgiving mince pie with burnt almonds and a dash of furniture polish.”

Back then, Thanksgiving was a moveable feast that occurred anytime in the fall between October and November.

And so, it came to pass that President Woodrow Wilson set the annual feast for Nov. 25 a century ago — one of his last official acts. The Nov. 2 election was a decided victory for Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio, who no doubt was thankful for women’s votes, even while his reputation with these new voters was sketchy.

Back home, food rationing and ingredient substitutions were necessary and a home cook’s patriotic duty. During World War I, the Telegram ran pie recipes substituting cornmeal, oats and rye for wheat flour that was sent to troops overseas.

By November 1920, Thanksgiving pies made with flour and sugar provided ample proof of the sweet taste of victory. A quick review of the Telegram’s grocery advertisements revealed that cakes, pies and candies remained tasty objects of culinary desires as more sugar hit pantry shelves.

But these advertisements hid an ugly truth: After the war and pandemic, food prices had risen sharply. Holiday cooks were beset by high prices and bird scarcity. Grocery turkeys were about $1 a pound (about $13 in today’s dollars) — a price worthy of a king’s banquet. More than one Telegram writer complained, “A turkey cost as much as a house.”

Contemplation of one’s relationship with God was supplemented with a celebration of one’s closeness to family here on earth; the turkey with all its trimmings became the dream centerpiece on many tables. In reality, it was most likely humble hens or hams on the platters.

The Daily Telegram reproduced long-winded sermons from local pastors contemplating heaven-bound relationships with the Almighty, while Society pages were filled with descriptions of earthly family celebrations and reunions.

Meanwhile, the Temple Telegram drew attention to the essential aspect of Bell County’s Thanksgiving — the annual gridiron matchup between Temple and Belton high schools. A crowd of about 1,500 packed into Temple’s Woodson Field for the inter-city rivalry on Thanksgiving Day.

“The teams were so evenly matched that only by good generalship and taking advantage of every opportunity could a winning score be obtained,” the Telegram reported.

Belton nabbed the lead 7-0 early in the first quarter after a blocked kick and held on for four quarters to seal the win.

Fans were boisterous but well-behaved, the Telegram reported, adding, “Belton staged a snake dance after the game through the streets with the red and white colors and plenty of noise and cheers for the victors.”

A survey of Bell County newspapers revealed divided attitudes and images of Thanksgiving, partly due to the weariness from war and influenza along with the changing cultural shift that would earmark the 1920s decade.

On one hand, advertisements and news stories reflected puritan humility and sparseness, while on opposite pages were pictures and offers of extravagant celebratory feasts.

The Belton paper provided charming accounts of schoolchildren’s programs about Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden, while the Temple paper detailed the students illustrating lavish harvests and agricultural bounty.

That abundance was a stark contrast to the Daily Telegram’s poignant feature about those living in the county’s “poor farm,” a tax-supported community for indigents. The story described how the women residents were “making their own dresses for the winter season” while the men propagated food for their own holiday tables. They had no money, no home and no relatives, but they created their own Thanksgiving family, thanks to the county’s meager largesse.

Nowhere was that duality more apparent than among Bell County’s African-American residents. While most white residents enjoyed a Thanksgiving holiday, African-American teachers combined business with travel with the 36th annual meeting of the Colored Teachers’ Association meeting in Houston — an important workday.

More than 800 teachers and school administrators spent several days in conferences, training and continuing education. Black teachers faced difficult challenges: they were paid less, worked longer and often lacked sufficient training for their jobs because they were excluded from white-only pedagogy programs.

Still, Bell County could be proud that Lula Brackett “L.B.” Kinchion (1874-1955), esteemed principal of Belton’s black schools, was installed as state president during that meeting. Also taking a significant role in the association’s leadership were several black teachers and administrators from Temple’s segregated schools.

The Dallas Express, an African-American newspaper widely circulated throughout Bell County, articulated thanks for the war’s end and returning troops while its editorial noted the business and educational advancements made by black Texans.

However, Thanksgiving was a stark reminder that communities had much more to accomplish in racial parity, the editorial said.

“The year just passed has not witnessed any lessening of the prejudice necessarily, but it has seemed to mark a decided increase in the number of our neighbors who realize that the spirit of mutual cooperation will result in increased benefit to all concerned,” the Express observed. “A country is not a peace and its people are not happy until racial frictions are allayed and racial bigotry is dispossessed; until every immigrant nationality has learned to live on terms of law and order with every other.”