A quick skim of Bell County newspapers gave the impression that fall 1907 would be a very good year indeed.
Two new jewelry stores had opened up in downtown Temple; department stores such as Cheeves and the Mississippi store featured enticing sales that lured out-of-towners to spend, spend, spend. Folks were even excited about a new Dallas department store — called Neiman-Marcus — opening in September.
People plopped down their dimes and quarters in theaters to see amazing technology that allowed images to move about on a flat screen. The Temple Daily Telegram first rolled off the presses that fall, quickly overtaking the smattering of county weeklies in circulation and advertising revenue.
Yes, 1907 was going to turn out to be a very good year after all — until a series of bank failures in October 1907 triggered a plunge of the New York Stock Exchange.
President Theodore Roosevelt approved the takeover of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. by J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel company. Other railroad magnates, including Santa Fe Railway stockholders, wondered when their rail lines would be next.
But none were so devastating as 1907’s freakish weather. The spring had record-breaking hot temperatures — 90-plus degrees in March. More than a third of the average yearly rain fell on Bell County, inundating fields just as harvest was beginning.
Farmers managed well, until the skies opened up in late September, which created a perfect storm of standing water, warm weather and clouds of mosquitoes. This prompted a significant epidemic of dengue fever in Central and South Texas.
As if things couldn’t get worse, temperatures dipped as the year’s first freeze was recorded on Nov. 13 and continued for the following week.
In the meantime, the Jupiter Pluvius played havoc as bridges washed out, forcing rail traffic to a halt — further crippling Central Texas’ economy. Construction on the new Santa Fe Employees Hospital on South 25th Street was to have been completed by fall 1907, but construction halted and would not resume until the next spring.
This bad news rippled down to affect every neighborhood in Bell County.
Bank failures, crop failures, rail failures and mosquito-borne sickness all compounded to create another crisis in Bell County — the overwhelming number of poor people without food, fuel or shelter as weather worsened.
Various churches and civic organizations always had distributed gifts, toys and food during annul Yuletide fundraisers coordinated through the Temple Pastors’ Association, but nothing was organized in a citywide effort.
Some efforts were small but admirable. In 1902, the Sunday school classes of Cumberland Presbyterian Church (now Grace Presbyterian) combined efforts to “spend the funds for something calculated to be of service in homes of the needy,” reported the Temple Times. Each class supplemented the funds with their own donations.
Some tended to view the city’s needy through rose-colored stained-glass windows. In 1905, the Rev. Pius A. Heckman, rector of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, lamented that canvassers could find only two needy families for gifts.
Christmas 1906 was as close to perfect as any, according to the Temple Tribune. The weather was ideal and the city reveled in prosperity. “It can be safely said that it was the most ideal day of its kind that could be imagined,” reported the paper.
“Throughout the homes of the city, Christmas trees in hundreds were laden with gifts for young and old folk alike and more Christmas dinners were eaten today in true Christmas spirit than could be counted.”
However, as the 1907 holiday season thudded in mud, a group of civic-minded citizens along with local church pastors saw bigger challenges.
A committee formed with members were the Rev. Eugene Cecil Seaman (1881-1950), the rector at Christ Episcopal Church; the Rev. Robert “Bob” Alex Hodges (1869-1938), Grace Presbyterian; the Rev. Heckman (1861-1926) at St. Mary’s Catholic Church; along with Edward Walter Stitt (1862-1910), Temple businessman; and Robert Otto Gresham Sr. (1873-1921), newspaper publisher.
The committee was met with some opposition. “Many were honestly under the impression that there was no need for such a fund — that there were none who were so destitute,” reported the Temple Daily Telegram, “all of which goes to prove again that those of us fairly or even better conditioned are prone to blindness of the circumstances in which others are laboring around us every day.”
As proof, they turned to the Temple Daily Telegram articles reporting how hordes were in frenzied shopping mode for the holidays as the stories heavily hinted that “Christmas shopping now will contribute to the gaiety of the nation.”
On the other hand, the newly formed committee of concerned clergy and laity saw the community differently.
Stitt said he was shocked to find families “without a pound of food or a stick of fuel on the premises.”
“In other words,” Stitt said, “it was a race between starvation and death by exposure — with both probably making the finish together.” Stitt immediately ordered 30-day supplies of food and loads of wood for each family.
The committee members assessed what they called “the Christmas poor fund” to pinpoint who needs help, how much and where.
Labor unions and all church denominations — Protestant and Catholic — generously contributed as the stories continued to pour out on the news pages. Hotels and restaurants donated leftover food.
The poor fund had been organized to provide “the necessities of life and the simple luxuries of childhood … at this season of the year.”
However, the committee’s conclusion: “There is so much truth in the old saying, ‘One half of the world knows nothing of how the other half lives.’”