A Sharecropper Christmas
What kind of Christmas will her children have?
The Great Depression left the Shoemaker family hungry and homeless. Their desperate prayers are finally answered when Henry Shoemaker finds work as a sharecropper. Alice makes the best of the hard times without complaint, though she dreams of giving her little family a special Christmas.
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Herbert’s voice radiated excitement. “Alice, I found a job!”
“Good,” she replied. Work explained the bottle of milk in his hand. “What kind of job?”
“Farming,” he said with a big smile. “Something I know how to do for a change.”
She couldn’t let herself get too enthused. This opportunity could fall through like too many others. “For how long?”
“It’s permanent!” Herbert grabbed her hands and attempted to swing her into a dance step. When Alice resisted, he dropped her hands and continued. “I ran into old man Sweeney a little while ago. He found out the tenants deserted one of his farms. They didn’t give him any notice, just packed up and left in the middle of the night. Mr. Sweeney told me I can work his place on the thirds and fourths.”
“When do you start?” Alice asked cautiously.
“As soon as possible,” Herbert said. “Mr. Sweeney needs somebody right away so he can quit worrying about paying someone to milk the cows every morning. We can pack up tonight and head south right after church tomorrow. Monday morning I will milk and start plowing. I have it in my mind to grow some winter vegetables, and I want to get you and the kids settled into the house as quick as I can.”
“There’s a house?”
“Yes. It’s a regular working farm, just like…just like any farm would be. Fifty acres, with a house and a barn and its own windmill. Our prayers have been answered, Alice. Praise God!”
“A house,” she repeated, determined not to cry. Five years ago, Alice never dreamed she could be excited about sharecropping. When she and Herbert married, Alice knew she would have to work hard—all farmers’ wives faced that prospect. Yet she never expected to be turned out of their home with little more than the clothes on their backs. Herbert made a good crop in 1929, the year after they were married. Even though the news about the stock market was grim, traders in Europe and New York City seemed to have no connection to a West Texas cotton farmer. Soon, however, the price of cotton fell so dramatically that Herbert’s sales at the local gin didn’t cover his investment in seed and materials. The only way to recover was to have a good crop, and the only way to finance the effort was to mortgage the farm. In 1933, the bank foreclosed.
As more and more farmers and business owners faced bankruptcy, desperation stalked every household. Alice and Herbert took shelter with various relatives for a month or two at a time after they lost their land. They tried to make themselves useful guests, Herbert tinkering, repairing, and chopping firewood to earn their keep. Alice made sure she did the lion’s share of the housework, although she often felt some folks took unfair advantage. Her parents, Charley and Myrtle Smith, were in no position to help, having lost their meager savings when the bank failed. There was no possibility the Smiths’ tiny house could accommodate Alice’s family. Her sister Frances had already moved back home, bringing her husband and three children. Uncle John camped out on a cot in the Smiths’ kitchen. After they wore out their welcome with relatives, Alice sneaked her family’s few belongings into the far corner of an isolated warehouse, while Herbert continued his frantic search for work.
With his usual optimism, Herbert assured Alice every day that he would soon find a steady job. Then everything would be all right. Early each morning, he went to a vacant lot where unemployed men waited for a chance to earn a day or two of wages doing odd jobs. Herbert brought home barely enough to keep his family fed by hauling furniture, picking cotton, or repairing farm equipment. Although he never turned down any kind of work, there were too many days when he stood in the vacant lot from early in the morning until late afternoon, only to return home empty-handed.
Meanwhile, Alice used her mother’s treadle sewing machine and all the used bed sheets she could beg to stitch together a tent. It was finished in the nick of time. When the trucking foreman found the Shoemakers in his warehouse, he ordered them to vacate the premises immediately. Herbert cut cedar posts and somehow managed to get a second-hand tarp to throw over the makeshift tent in case of rain. They made their home outside town at the bend of the river, along with other hard-luck families and a sprinkling of hobos. After months of living in a tent, the prospect of a house sounded almost too good to be true.
“Where is the farm?” Alice asked.
“Not too far,” Herbert replied. “Garza’s Crossing, only a little piece south of San Antonio.”
It would be nice to stay closer to her hometown, but Alice made no complaint. The thought of living in a house took precedence over everything else. What a relief it would be for her baby not to be born in the tent city during the winter.
“Are we going to have milk tonight?” asked five-year-old James.
“Yes, son,” Alice replied. “Milk for supper with your soup. Doesn’t that sound good?”
James nodded solemnly. He reached a finger to touch the cold bottle in his father’s hand, as if to verify it was real.
“Who loaned you the wagon and mule?” Alice asked.
“Mr. Sweeney had them in town, but they belong out at the farm we’re taking over.”
“Are we moving to a house, Mama?” James asked.
“Yes.” Alice smoothed his blond hair. “A farmhouse.”
“David.” James held his three-year-old brother’s face in both hands. “We’re going to live in a house again.”