For me and for our family, Christmas was the big day of the year,
with the highlight being the program at Church, and those real red
oranges and boxes of chocolates that Matthews store used to supply for
the occasion. Even the color of the boxes had the look of Christmas. And
there was so much excitement about the recitations we were expected to
give at the church service. It seemed as if we practiced every day after
school, for weeks before the big event.
There were so many things that were special, but high on the list
should be sugar cakes, cocoanut cookies and ginger snaps that Mother
produced. I don't know how many times she had to fill those lard cans
that held the goodies, but I am sure it was more than once. And then, of
course, she tried to hide them. It might be up in the stove room on that
elevated platform that held the flour, or down in the cellar in those
dark places where potatoes and apples were kept, perhaps in that little
closet between the living room and the dining room, and maybe in the
closet just off Mother's bedroom. These, I am sure, were not the only
places. But sooner or later the smell of them would give the hiding
place away, and of course they tasted all the better for the search.
As good as were the cookies, it was the big fruit cake that
represented all the spirit of Christmas in one package. I recall that
Mother started the process several weeks ahead. She mixed the
ingredients: in a large pan, certainly 18 inches in diameter. After it
had been in the oven for a while, the smell found its way all through
the house. There were strange spices in it, spices used just this one
time in the year. The baking seemed to take a long time. Every so often,
Mother would take the cake out and push a straw into the middle, to see
how things were doing. When the straw came out perfectly clean, it meant
that the cake was done. I will settle for that smell, it was so
This was one cake we never touched ahead of time, perhaps because it
was too dignified looking or that we felt it would be too great a sin.
At any rate, I am sure we kept hands off. Mother was always especially
proud of her fruit cake. So whenever her friends came for a visit, from
Thurmont or Frederick or Fairfield, out would come a plate full of her
handiwork. And all would agree that this was the very best that
"Miss Minnie" had ever baked. As of course it was.
Many times I have surprised New Englanders by telling them that at
the Hays household, in Emmitsburg, the big feature for Christmas, as
well as for Thanksgiving or New Year's Day, was not turkey, but fried
oysters. Why not?. They were great the way Mother fried them. Sometimes
we had fried chicken, but that was usually in the summer. So it was
either chicken or oysters often papa would go by train to Baltimore on
business, and on his return would bring home a gallon can of the best,
fresh from the Chesapeake Bay.
To get back to Christmas. There was an event that went out of style
long ago. It was known as Kriss
Kringling, or Bell Snickling, as it was sometimes called. During the holiday season, it was common practice for all the youngsters to
dress up in a costume, much like the kind worn at Halloween, and go from
door to door, hoping for a hand-out of cookies. Masks could be bought at
Hoke's store. The older boys, instead of going on foot, would go
horseback, and I recall seeing large groups of them, riding through town
on their way to a farmhouse out a mile or so, to the home of someone
known for being especially hospitable. I never did it, but it always
seemed very exciting, and something I hoped to when old enough.
But soon the custom disappeared, due to the arrival of automobiles,
which prevented the use of the roads for any purpose, other than motor
traffic. Our best coasting hill was now gone, the one out at Bishop
Murray's place, adjacent to the Mountain View Cemetery. Bishop John
Gardner Murray was the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland. I recall that one
of his children, I think a daughter, used to drive to town in a smart
looking pony cart, thus turning us green with envy. This summer home of
the Bishop was once owned and occupied by my great uncle Joseph Hays, a
brother of Grandfather Hays.
Christmas shopping was an experience, made memorable by the fact that
we children had very little to spend. Papa had never heard of such a
thing as a child's allowance, and he never saw the need to supply us
with spending money. But we were not completely without cash, not at
all. There was Mother. How she managed to save as much as she did, I
will never know. I recall that for a few years she paid in to a
Christmas Club at the local Savings Bank. One year it was 50 cents a
week, then later that amount was doubled. When the check arrived, some
three weeks before Christmas, it was manna from Heaven. All that money!
The check itself was decorated like a Christmas card. Mother sold eggs
and chickens and butter and cream and sweet corn, and these sales were
the source of her generous outlays to the six of us.
So supplied with a small amount of cash, the great problem arose as
to what to buy for presents. I recall that we made one trip to
Frederick, to do our, shopping, and I am sure we bought something that
looked gaudy but low in price. For Papa, the thing he was sure to get
was a handkerchief. He was so good about it. , said it was just what he
wanted. The toys for us were never the expensive kind, not as good as
the ones the Biggs boys received. We did, however, get a most wonderful
toy on one occasion, a monkey that climbed up and down a string.
How we liked that monk. From Frank Weant, across the street, one or
the other of us was sure to get a Horatio Alger book, and of course we
could all enjoy it. I still have one. As each one of us came along, a
sled and ice skates appeared under the tree. But the skates were those
horrible clamp affairs that would come loose and send you flat on your
back. I would like to have the man who invented them, by the throat. I
don't remember that we had any toys that were at all elaborate, nor did
it matter how much or how little they cost. They were beautiful, there
under the tree on Christmas morning. No one was happier than the six of
Mention of the tree brings up the question as to where our trees came
from. No one sold them. No one packaged them. You went out and cut your
own. There was a place just outside of town, called Carrick's Knob;
where some were available. I recall going down toward Thurmont, with
Uncle Harry (Mother's brother) where we cut down several lovely ones.
Another time, which my brother 'John will recall, we went with Clarence
Eyler and his brother Floyd, to a place in the mountain, where we found
trees that were just what we wanted.
I am reminded of the story Mother
told us of the time that Santa arrived at the house, but found no tree.
So what did he do but go to the stable, hitch up Old Dan, and go for
one. It had snowed, so there were the marks in the snow on Christmas
morning. He apparently had to cut it to size, and there were the very
chips, right there for us to see. What a thrilling and moving story that
was! To think that Santa would go to all that trouble, just for us. And
there it was when we woke, all trimmed and beautiful.
I will close this little sketch of Christmas with some random
thoughts, or rather with just the mention of some little things that
stay in my memory. But first, let me say that for the Hays kids,
Christmas was excitement supreme. The happiest time of the year. The
time when delicious cookies and cakes were in great supply. The time
when the few young people who had gone away to college, came home; the
time when people did the unusual; the time when children had a part in
the church service. It really was a festive occasion.
I remember Mother
getting us out of bed, around midnight, and taking us into the room on
the corner nearest the Shuff house, where we could see and hear the
Christmas carolers. And if there was snow on the ground, that only added
to the wonderment. There was a Minister at the Reformed Church, by the
name of Rev. Higbee, who at one time worked in our shop. He had a great
sense of humor, used to talk about singing the Adeste-Fiddle-dees. I
remember that he had an office (should be called a den) with books of
all kinds. I really owe him a big debt, for it was in his study that I
learned of the treasures to be found in books.
I cannot close without mentioning the Christmas program at the
Lutheran Church, which, for some reason, was held at night, rather than
morning. The Lutherans were bigger and stronger than we poor
Presbyterians, and so we liked to go to their service. The real reason
was, that perhaps they would take pity on us and give us an orange or
box of candy, or both.
Christmas day was one of the two or three holidays when Papa dressed
in his Sunday best. And no work, which itself was notable. Just having
him in the house, in his Sunday clothes, was something special.
Next to our house lived Mr. & Mrs. Shuff, with only a narrow
four-foot passageway between us. For all I knew, they had always lived
there. Their house, unlike almost every other one in town, had a sizable
front porch, shaded by several large maple trees. In back of the house
was a garden. At the rear of the lot was a horse stable and a carriage
Mr. Shuff operated a furniture business in a two-story shop,
alongside his house. The rear part of the store was his small work-room.
Among other things chat I recall about this workroom was a glue pot that
was kept on a small stove, the glue being used for repairing furniture.
To all the above I must add that Mr. Shuff was the local undertaker and
funeral director. And lest you think that such a somber business might
have little or no interest for the Hays children, the truth is it had a
great fascination for us. The Shuff boys, Clay and Frank, were born
pranksters, who never let their father's funeral business stand in the
way of a practical joke.
Mr. Shuff had one old the old-fashioned hearses, with a glass
enclosed section where the casket was placed. There were many brass
fixtures, such as a large brass light fixture on each side of the
driver's seat. The hearse was drawn by two horses which, along with a
third one kept in reserve, were owned by Mr. Shuff and kept in his
I have gone into some detail about the Shuff establishment because it
played a big role in my early life and in the lives of our family . . .
But before I go any further. I must report that Mr. Shuff was the town
Justice of the Peace, whose courtroom was that tiny little workroom with
the glee pot on the stove.
In our day, funerals were held either in the home of the deceased or
at a local church. In either case, someone had to "mind the
horses" while the service was in progress, and this is where we
often played what seemed to be an important part. One of us would go
along to do the minding. I remember being asked to go to a funeral
several miles out of town, on a very hot and drowsy summer day. Mamma
knew I was going and sent me across the street, to Hoke's store, to buy
an appropriate hat or cap, so as to be in proper funereal form. So over
I went to Hoke's, an old style general store, and came back with a
jaunty cap, in the loudest colors imaginable. For years the Shuff boys
never failed to remind me of my famous "funeral cap. "
Anyway, off we went, Mr. Shuff and I up on that high seat with no
back rest and fully exposed to the hot sun. Finally we reached the
church and soon I was alone on the hot seat, while inside the church the
Minister was loudly proclaiming the virtues of the deceased, requiring,
as it seemed to me, at least an hour. It was probably no more than half
that time. I don't remember if the job carried any pay for me. If it
did, I am sure it was no more than a dime.
Once the funeral was over and we had returned to Mr. Shuff's store,
there now came the task of washing the hearse and shining all that
brass. This seemed like a big operation. I was always impressed by the
number of chamois cloths he had on hand, probably because we didn't have
such a luxury at home. This huge, heavy and ornamented chariot, used
only for a funeral, carried a certain amount of mystique. We considered
it quite a privilege to help restore it to its pristine beauty. As a
final act, we covered the hearse with a large white cloth and then
pulled or pushed it into its select spot in the barn.
As I have mentioned, Clay and Frank Shuff, who were some nine or ten
years older than I, never missed a chance for a practical joke. Thus, on
one occasion, Clay asked a man who worked occasionally for them, Jake by
name, if he would go down to the barn to help move some roughboxes, as
they were called. A roughbox, made of light wood, was sometimes used in
place of a casket, and in the Shuff barn there were usually five or six
of them, standing on end.
Now Jake was chosen as the helper on this occasion, because he was
not too bright and was slightly superstitious. Down went Clay and Jake.
They took hold of the box to be moved, with Frank Shuff inside and
waiting. "W H 0 0 0 W H 0 0 0 . . . " was all Jake needed to
hear and he was gone, never to go near Shuff's barn again.
Emmitsburg was located at the foot of the mountain, where there were
a number of men, and women too, who lived a rather free and easy life,
with much drinking and fighting, and when things got too bad, the local
constable would arrest one of them. Probably the one least apt to offer
resistance. Soon the officer, with his culprit in tow, would arrive at
the Shuff courtroom, and thereupon either Frank or Clay would come
running to call any Hays boys he could find, to come and see the show.
So over we went to the room with the glue pot, there to see Mr. Shuff
(Millard by name) the constable and the culprit, ready for the trial to
No evidence of any consequence was offered. None was needed. Mr.
Shuff knew it was the same old story, a little too much moonshine. So
instead of hearing evidence, he gave his usual lecture; mumbled would
better describe his manner, which we boys found it hard to follow. In
substance it came out like this: "Now Mike, if you come in here
again, you're going down to Jessup's Cut, " a State prison off
somewhere down country, whereupon Mike vows to be good, and is ordered
to pay "costs" of $2. 00, in the unlikely event that he had
I think that these exciting courtroom dramas were my first exposure
to the law, although I recall that Mr. Shuff once asked me to type up a
deed to some land. We had an ancient Oliver typewriter at the shop, so I
followed an old form he gave me, and produced my first quitclaim deed. I
was probably fourteen or even less.
The foregoing will give some idea of how close our two families were.
Ruth Shuff, a sister to Frank and Clay, had studied the piano (in
Baltimore, I believe) so she and "Miss Minnie" had a great
time playing duets, in our parlor or in Ruth's. On Sunday afternoons,
when it was hot and all action of any kind was shut down, Shuffs' wide
porch, well shaded and with a supply of rocking chairs, was the place to
be. Beyond all else was the fact that Shuffs had the Baltimore Sunday
paper which, I assure you, was not the case next door. It must have had
something to do with the fact that the Shuffs were Lutherans and we were
How we loved those Sunday comics, or "funny papers" as we
called them. There were two favorites: The Katzenjammer Kids and
For a great many years, Papa took care of all plumbing, heating,
lighting and a part of the building construction at the college, located
about two miles along the road leading to Thurmont. My earliest memory
is of driving the wagon (horse and wagon) to the college in the morning
at about seven o'clock. I would take Mr. Weant, Webb Felix and various
other workmen on occasion. Mr. Weant had worked for us all his life. It
would take about half an hour to reach the college, then turn around and
back to the house for break-fast and off to school. This would be
repeated at the end of the day. If the men were late in leaving their
work, I (or whichever one of us was the driver) would wait at the
college barn for them. In winter the barn was a nice warm place. Then
home to supper.
Should it be a Saturday and no school, or should it be summertime, it
often happened that Papa would tell me, or one of my brothers, to
"hitch up" Old Dan" and take him to the college. As soon
as we arrived, he was off at full speed, very likely going first to the
boiler room, where a college employee, Ed Seltzer, was in charge of
firing the big boilers, which furnished heat for the college buildings
and steam for the generators. Papa would check around, making sure all
was in order. My guess is that these boilers stood some nine or ten feet
high, the doors into which the coal was shoveled being quite wide, and
the fire inside very hot. Having found all in order there, the next stop
was usually at the gas house. Here was a big acetylene generator, built
and installed by J. T. Hays & Son, and used to light the entire
college. Whereas the drum holding the water, on an ordinary home
generator, would be perhaps two feet in diameter, this one at the
college was twelve feet or more in diameter.
Next we would set out for some other building, and in doing so, it
was not uncommon to meet the college President, Father Bradley, as he
walked about the college grounds. He was a short red-faced Irishman,
with whom Papa was on the most friendly terms. So they would stop for a
chat, the good Father asking Tom about some work that was underway or
that was being considered.
Our next stop might be the college gymnasium, to see if lights, heat
and water were in good order. This gym held great interest for me, since
I would see pictures on the walls of athletic teams, and trophies in
cases, commemorating famous events in the athletic history of the
college. These pictures and trophies were very exciting for us, who knew
very little about these sports. That is, except baseball.
From the gym we might next go to the Seminary building and the
college church. I think I should not say "'we" went, but
rather that Papa went, and whichever one of us was with him, would tag
along behind, trying to keep up. He never walked slowly, except on
Sunday. Again it was a case of looking for anything about which he
should speak to Mr. Weant, so that necessary repairs might be made.
Now I come to speak of a stop at what Papa called the Refectory,
which was a wholly new word for me, as I assume it was for my brothers.
We knew only that it had something to do with the dining room of the
college. I know now that the word means a dining hall in a monastery.
But we tagged along, and somewhere along the line we came to my favorite
stop, the dairy. It was in a basement, where even in hot weather it was
pleasantly cool. Some wonderful and lovable nuns were in charge, who
knew just what a hungry and thirsty boy would like. Cold delicious milk
and sugar cookies. Nothing could taste any better.
I never understood fully what Papa was doing on these tours, and it
was only later that I came to realize that he felt completely
responsible for everything at the college, except, of course, teaching.
Somewhere along the way, he would meet up with Mr. Weant, for a
discussion about the things needing repair, after which he would say, if
I were the one who was tagging along, "Come on, Billy, we'd better
get along back to the shop."
It was a most unusual arrangement that existed over many years, this
ore between Papa and Mt. St. Mary's. He might go to Baltimore or
Philadelphia, buy a new generator for producing electricity, have it
shipped over the Western Maryland Railroad, by way of Rocky Ridge. From
that point it came over the Emmitsburg Railroad to the end of that line,
and then it would be hauled to the college by a four- or six-mule team,
and there it would be installed. I recall Tierney, Father Cogan and many
others. When I was about to leave for Harvard Law School, I was with
Papa when we happened upon Father Bradley on one of his walks about the
college grounds. I knew that his home had been in Braintree, Mass., not
far out of Boston, so I told him that I would be in Cambridge, Mass. to
enter law school. "That's fine, Billy. You must work hard. "
Then he said that the Clerk of the Suffolk County Superior Court was a
"Mount" boy, by the name of Campbell, and that I should go see
him. I did meet him and enjoyed his account of his days as a student at
the "Mount," when students had to heat their rooms with a
Now to finish the story of the business arrangement which I mentioned
earlier. Sometime about 1930, Papa retired from active work, with my
brother Jim taking over the business. He felt it would be a good idea to
have a settlement, so called, with the college. By -now, with many
operations being electrified, there was much less need for our work. Any
building construction would now be handled by Baltimore contractors,
with trucks able to carry all necessary materials over paved roads. So
Papa talked with Father Bradley and the bill was fully approved. The
amount was somewhat sizable for a small business. The only question was
whether Papa wanted cash or a note, and he suggested a note. In a year
or so thereafter, Papa died. Now this was at the time of the big
Depression and cash was scarce. But the College said at once that the
note would be paid forthwith and it was. Thus a most unusual
relationship came to a very happy ending. It meant a lot to us then, and
still does to this day.
I said it was an unusual business relationship. It was also a very
cordial and friendly one. I recall numerous times when Father (
Monsignor) Tierney, the Vice President, would walk the two miles to town
and often stop at our shop. Papa might be working at a lathe or some
other machine. So the tall, white-bearded Monsignor, in his cassock and
robe, would stand by, asking questions and discussing some current
political matter, or just quietly, watching his good friend Tom at work.
I think that Papa had the respect and confidence of these men. I know
that he held them in high esteem. They were well-educated; he never
reached beyond the sixth grade. He was a strict Presbyterian; they were
Catholic. In all the years, I think there was never the slightest
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