Schools have been an important part of our county since its earliest days, and schools once dotted our hills in places where no schools stand today.
There were schools named for creeks, such as Turtle Creek School and Cypress Creek School; there were schools that served farming and ranching communities, like the Reservation School and the Divide School. Hunt, Ingram and Center Point all had schools, of course, as well as Kerrville.
But schools also provided a place to gather, and with Christmas just around the corner, I thought I’d share a story from my files about the Sunset community coming together during the Christmas season early in the last century, around 1907.
My father printed a book for Mr. Herbert E. Oehler in 1981 called “Hill Country Boy,” a “compilation of articles” Oehler had written for “Hill Country, the magazine supplement of The Kerrville Daily Times, during the period from November 1972 to July 1974.”
I like the book because it offers a clear view of what life was like here at the turn of the last century. The Oehlers had a nice place in the Sunset community, between Ingram and Mountain Home, in the Johnson Creek valley.
“Christmas,” Oehler writes, “was an important community event. Its celebration was not too much different from what it is today, with a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, gift giving and a big meal. However, the one thing that was conspicuously different was that the whole celebration revolved around the commonly accepted belief that it was a religious observance.”
That was why, he continues, the last day of school before the Christmas holiday was given over to a community Christmas tree and program.
“For this event, the teacher’s desk was moved to one side and a big cedar tree was set up, filling the space between the blackboard and the recitation bench. The trimmings were mostly homemade — strings of popcorn, colored paper chains and glittering strands of tin foil. A tinsel star twinkled at the very top, reflecting the sputtering flame of the many-colored wax candles in their clip-on metal holders. About the base of the tree, which was swathed in red crepe paper, were cheesecloth bags filled with fruit, nuts and candy, one for each boy and girl.
“But before Santa Claus came out to distribute these to the children, the program had to be presented. This varied little from year to year. There was a manger scene, there were shepherds and wise men, and angels, too. Competition between the older girls for the role of the Virgin Mary was especially keen. Just how the teacher made the appointment without causing some hair pulling will always remain her secret. If the girl had a chosen ‘beau,’ or if she liked a certain boy, he usually rather reluctantly donned the robes of Joseph. The roles of shepherds, wise men, innkeeper and angels were assigned to those who did not give a recitation. These recitations were usually Christmas poems or readings given by badly frightened, stuttering boys and girls between the singing of the old familiar Christmas songs.
“At home, Christmas did not lose its religious character just because there was a distribution of gifts. Christmas Day was a religious holiday, just like Sunday, and we did only the chores that were absolutely necessary on that day. The gifts were given out after breakfast from beneath a tree (which was a small replica of the one at school). … The tree was almost perfect in shape because all during the year Papa would spot small suitable cedar trees and keep them trimmed for the purpose.”
There were eight children in the Oehler house, and although most of the gifts under the tree were for the entire family — fruit and nuts, a bushel of apples — each child had an individual gift, “something we could call our very own.”
After each child had had a chance to try out their gifts — to play with them out in the yard — Oehler’s father would call them all back to the house and read from a book of sermons.
They were “in German, and while we did not always understand all of it, we knew we had to stay quiet and pay attention anyway. When the reading was over, it was usually time for Mama to put dinner on the table. Then it was back to play or a visit with the neighbors or whatever it was we wanted to do.”
I’m hoping your Christmas season is holy — and merry, too.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is particularly fond of a certain school teacher.