Articles & Stories

Old Letter Tells of Exciting Christmas

Eve In Breckinridge County

The Winter of 1917-1918 Was One Of The Coldest Recorded With Several Snowstorms

Author's Note: Years ago a member of my family began sending a letter to another family member. As each person received the letter they would add something to it and send it to the next family member. Some would write a lengthy letter (depending on the news of the day) and some would only add a paragraph or two. Apparently, Grandma Dowell had a lot of news to offer according to the following letter. (Nobody is sure when the Dowell Journal started or ended. Maybe this letter was one of the first.) The winter of 1917-1918, when this letter was written, had the most snow and was one of the coldest ever recorded.

By Mrs. William Harrison Dowell - 1917

Breckinridge County, Union Star, Kentucky
December 26, 1917
Dear Loved Ones: "I believe this winter has been as cold and snowy as any of the old-timers around these parts can remember. Pa and me are at home by ourselves for the first time since we first married. All of you children have married and left home to live your own lives and have started your families. But that is the way the Lord intended for it to be anyway. Gee, Christmas is over with already. We have had several big snowstorms. It has left big snowdrifts, so travel in a buggy is almost impossible. Pa said that some of the snowdrifts are so tall that they come almost to the top of the withers of his tallest mule, Barney. But you know how Pa likes to stretch things. (Remember how you kids loved to ride Barney when he went to the pond to get a drink of water.) But I am regressing. Pa has been breaking the ice on the pond morning and night so the livestock can have water to drink.
"We were going to have the preacher and his wife, Lucy, over for a fried chicken dinner on Christmas day, but like I said before, travel these days in a buggy is not at all practical with the big snowdrifts and all.


This old photo was taken February 22, 1929, at Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky. There had been a 26-inch snowfall the night before on top of a six-inch snow already on the ground. It took two engines to get the train through the deep snow drifts. Note the snow on the cow catcher. Jim Benton was the conductor, Mack Peyton was in charge of mail and the baggage car, and Conner Likins was the engineer. Lois Wyatt, 2980 Cincinnati-Brookville, Hamilton, OH 45013, shares this photo with our readers.

"Pa finally went out and cut a cedar tree (Christmas tree) and put it up in the corner near the fireplace. He said he wasn't going to bother with a tree this year, since all you kids were gone. But I guess he couldn't stand it any longer, not having a tree and all. I never said a word. I just popped some popcorn and strung it on a thread and put it on the tree like we did when all you kids were here. We also used all the paper decorations that all you had made, and the Christmas tree really turned out to be real cheerful.
"Pa said he really needed some plow points come time for spring plowing, but he didn't know how we could pay for them, since money was so scarce this year. I talked to the man at the pharmacy in town, and he said they would pay me for my hair. Since it was so long they could send it off to New York City where they could make a wig out of it for those high-society people who live there. I haven't had my hair cut since I was a little girl, but I decided to go and do it. I wear my bonnet all the time (even in bed) and Pa never notices anything like that anyhow. I thought the plow points would make a good practical Christmas present for Pa.
"Golly, we had some excitement here Christmas Eve. We went to bed as soon as we had done the chores and the supper dishes were washed and put away. Right away we heard some of our chickens raising a racket. Chicken houses have been raided around some farms here lately. (There is no excuse for stealing, but it has been hard for some men to feed their families.) We have had some hard times lately with the bad weather and all. Anyway, Pa jumped out of bed, slipped on his coat and boots, and got his double-barreled shotgun that is always in the corner loaded with buckshot. Our dog, Old Blue, sleeps at the foot of our bed and was really getting restless. He is always ready to follow Pa wherever he goes. Both of them ran down the steps and out the front door. I could see both of them in the moonlight on the snow from the upstairs window, as they eased closer and closer to the chicken house. Suddenly, a chicken squawked real loud. Pa stopped in his tracks. Old Blue didn't. Blue's nose went under Pa's coattail and into the trapdoor of Pa's long underwear. Pa jumped straight up in the air and pulled both triggers on the shotgun. Both barrels on the shotgun exploded at the same time and blew the door clean off the chicken house. Well, sir, chicken feathers, chicken innards, and blood splattered all over the white snow. Poor Old Blue ran under the house and stayed for two days. He finally came out for the bones we had saved for him. I decided to get dressed and go downstairs, because I knew that we would be plucking, cleaning, and cutting up chickens for a spell. In a few hours we were finished, and we had several servings of chicken in pans on the back porch. (Refrigerated by the coldness of the wintery days and nights, of course.)
"After sleeping a few hours, we were up and ready to do our morning chores. I suggested to Pa that he needed to go down the road and invite our tenant, Bob, and his family for Christmas dinner since the preacher couldn't come. Pa really was not in the mood for Bob's company, since he still thought that Bob was the one who was after our chickens in the first place. I told Pa if Bob was the one after our chickens he was probably scared within an inch of his life with Pa blowing the door off the chicken house and all. The spirit of Christmas took hold of Pa, and as soon as we saw smoke coming from their chimney he went to their house and extended our dinner invitation. Pa said at first Bob acted sort of sheepish when he showed up at his front door, but finally accepted the invitation, since all four of their children were begging to come and such. "We had a very nice Christmas dinner that was enjoyed by all. Pa had dug the white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and apples out of the root cellar that he had covered with straw and dirt in the fall. The chicken and dumplings, of course, were a big hit with the children. Green beans, beets, and corn we had canned in the fall made a nice addition to our meal. Bob's children were nearly frozen when they got here from down the road, so Pa and Bob kept them next to the fireplace and entertained them while Bob's wife and I set the table, baked the bread, and put the finishing touches to the meal.
"After the meal was eaten and the dishes were washed and put away, I made some finger dolls out of several of Pa's white, cotton handkerchiefs. I pulled the handkerchief over my finger and tied the head with a string. Of course, the children were amazed and delighted since it was the only Christmas present that they had gotten that year. (Remember when I made the "finger dolls" in church when you kids were little, so you could be entertained and not disturb the preacher's sermon.)
"Later on that day, when Bob's family went home after a lot of hugs and tears, we sent a lot of leftovers home with them, and, of course, lots of chicken, both cooked and raw. Hopefully, with the good Lord's help, we will have enough food to keep us and our tenant's little family through this miserable, cold winter until we can start planting our gardens and crops in the spring. It was so quiet in the house after our friends left. It was nice to hear the laughter of children again after so long. Because of all the excitement of Christmas dinner, we had forgotten the gifts we had under the tree for each other. Pa unwrapped the plow points I had tried to hide wrapped up in newspaper print under the tree. He seemed surprised, but you know Pa never did show his feelings. Then I unwrapped Pa's present that he had made a terrible attempt at wrapping himself. Lord help me, if he hadn't bought me a pair of combs for my hair. I started laughing and crying at the same time. Pa wanted to know why I was making such a commotion over a pair of hair combs. My goodness, the Lord does provide for us in one way or another, doesn't he? My hair will grow back, and I will make good use of the hair combs in the future. I have gone on and on with this journal, so I must bring it to a close. Pa and I hope the Lord will be gracious to you and yours in the coming year."
Love to all, Pa and Grandma Dowell
Mr. and Mrs. William Harrison Dowell
About 50 years later a little girl asked her grandmother, "Grandma when was your favorite Christmas?" Her grandmother answered, "It was during the big snow in 1917 when everybody was snowed in, and we went to Mr. and Mrs. Dowells for Christmas dinner, and she made little finger dolls for my sisters and me." Through the eyes of a child you can forget the hardships and the sufferings and enjoy a country Christmas. Maybe this holiday we can all look through the eyes of a child.

Clifford W. Dowell, Jr., 2910 Chimney Rock Lane, Louisville, KY 40220, shares this article with our readers.