By Pat O’Connor
[Christmas 1912] I cut a small sycamore tree in the woods, three feet high. Mother patiently cut sprigs of pine and bound them, with heavy linen thread, to the graceful limbs of the little sycamore. Two holy candles were lighted on each side of the tree, at a safe distance.
We arose at half past three to go to High Mass… A fine turkey and two of our own chickens, with the matchless stuffing that Mother made so well with native sage flavor, made all the diners happy.
Charles B. Driscoll, “East and West of Wichita”
That was Christmas over a hundred years ago on the Driscoll farm near MacArthur and Hydraulic. Half a century later, many things hadn’t changed. There was constancy in family traditions, and use made of the neighborhood for holiday supplies and gifts. Downtown was still the main draw for shopping, accentuated by the street decorations and window displays.
James Hays lived at 9th and Crestway (Country Overlook) in the 1950s-60s.
“We didn’t travel on Christmas. The only grandparents we knew were right next door. Going to Mass was always part of Christmas. We would go early in the morning when we were little. Later on, after we outgrew Santa Claus, we would go to Midnight Mass at Blessed Sacrament. We would open gifts Christmas morning. My brother and I always woke up first. We slept in the same room. We had to lay low until mom and dad got up. My parents probably spent more than they could afford. Mom always had the house decorated nice. We would go visit friends and have a nice Christmas dinner with the grandparents later. I remember getting an electric train one time and a ping-pong table another year. That was a big deal. We were older and we had a room downstairs for it.”
Paul Babich grew up in Midtown. Both his father and grandfather, a poor immigrant from Croatia, worked at St. Francis Hospital.
“One Christmas, one of my buddies and I got a job selling Christmas trees at an empty lot at Murdock and Broadway. We charged a dollar a foot. Our family, on Christmas Eve, we would have gifts under the tree to open. My mom baked cookies and made punch. We thought that was something.
“Also, every Christmas, we would go around the hospital in a big procession with the nursing students and the nuns singing Christmas carols. One Christmas, my grandfather had a stroke, and we went into his room and sang. I’ll never forget his eyes watching us. He died the next day. My grandfather must’ve thought “Here I am—I came here with nothing and now, I’m about to die with all these people around me singing.’”
Tom Devlin, a well-known Wichita entrepreneur, had humble beginnings in a modest home on Bleckley in Crown Heights.
“Christmas time, my brother and I would take the bus downtown. All the department stores were downtown: Buck’s, Innes’, Hinkel’s. There was a little YMCA at Oliver and First Street. They would sell Christmas trees. I would go there every day after school and show people trees, help them load it in their car, and hopefully they would give me a dime. Two or three days before Christmas, I usually had a couple of bucks, so my brother and I would go downtown, buy presents for our mom. You could always find some lady who would help you—we tell her how much we had. We would get back on the bus and come home.”
Janeice Baum-Dixon lived in Northeast Heights (Hillside and 25th N.) and El Pueblo (25th N. and Arkansas). Her grandmother lived in Midtown.
“At Christmas, my grandmother, who had saved up money all year, would go to TG&Y or Atlantic Mills and buy lots of presents. We got to unwrap about 40 presents — just little things. We would have to go find boxes that stores threw away so she would have boxes to put presents in.”
Pat Fretzs lived on North Waco (Midtown).
“We always had a pretty good Christmas. We got dolls, play kits with little pills in them for doctors, trains, little skis.”
Ronald Hardesty spent his youth in the New Salem neighborhood, east of Old Town.
“For Christmas, we just wanted to open up our presents. We would be jazzed. I was 9 or 10 and I got a brand-new Western Flyer bicycle for Christmas. That was a big memory. It was from that Western Auto over on Hydraulic. We used that store a lot.”
Tim Souders’ father was the preacher at Bethel United Brethren, 3214 S. Edwards (Southwest Village) in the 1950s. Tim grew up in the parsonage and is an avid railroad enthusiast.
“I was in Christmas programs until about sixth grade. They started when the church was in the basement of the parsonage before we built the church. We had a little platform and the children would get up and do their thing. At the end, we would get little bags full of candy and oranges and apples. In the later years, the parishioners got together and gave mom and dad a food shower. Everybody just brought groceries and put them under the church’s Christmas tree.
“We didn’t have Santa Claus handing out presents, and it wasn’t because he was viewed as a secular symbol. It was just a time for church, to observe Christmas the way it was supposed to. You could go see Santa at Seneca Square.
“In the programs, there was a lot of singing. Everybody likes to hear children sing. Dad had the Christmas Eve service early. I think he felt the family should be home on Christmas Eve, so they can watch Henry Harvey as Santa getting off the ground.
“At May Street and Seneca, there was a Mugs Up root beer stand with an unpaved lot. They served root beer way better than A&W. During the winter, the Mugs Up would be closed, and they had Christmas trees in the lot. We usually got our Christmas trees there.
“The best Christmas I remember: We went to see my sister in Indiana and came home, and Santa Claus had left my first train set under the tree. It was a Lionel that dad had got at Oklahoma Tire and Supply at Seneca Square. I had it for years. It had a little steam engine. I had been pouring over all the Lionel catalogs at Sears and Innes. I knew what I would’ve liked to have, but it was just beyond what a preacher could get his kid, and I was happy.
“What I loved about going downtown, they used to stretch the garland across Douglas and put little candles on the streetlights. Downtown was a neat place at Christmas time in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”
These interviews were conducted for the Wichita Old Neighborhood Project. If you have a story about your old neighborhood, contact Pat O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 316-832-0309.