By Wally Kennedy
The Christmas tree in Gene Hays’ home is loaded with colorful ornaments he acquired from friends and family over several decades.
He knows it wouldn’t be Christmas at his house without a tree. It’s something he learned long ago as a child working at his father’s market at 12th and Main streets.
Things were different when Hays was a child. There was not much money for anything in the 1930s, but families still found a way to celebrate the holidays despite being caught in the throes of the Great Depression.
“My parents started Frank Hays Market in 1931. They built that store,’’ he said. “I was raised in an apple box there and finally graduated to an egg crate.’’
Hays was about six years old in 1936. That’s when he learned about the importance of Christmas trees to his family.
“We would order thousands of Douglas fir trees from A.J. Thomas in Mason City, Iowa. The trees were cut in Canada. I knew that because they had a Canadian tag on them,’’ said Hays. “They would come in one boxcar on the Missouri Pacific at 10th and Joplin streets.
“Every July, A.J. Thomas would come to Joplin and meet with my dad. They would go to Wilder’s for lunch and discuss the Christmas that was coming up. I was told: ‘We either sell Christmas trees this year or we don’t eat in July.’
“Our lot was solid with Christmas trees. One Christmas, my brother and I were so cold one night we built a bonfire to keep warm,’’ he said. “Our dad was really upset about that. He said, ‘What do you think you are doing with a fire in the middle of all of these cut Christmas trees?’ Boy was he upset, but we were cold.’’
A seven-foot tree would sell for less than $10. A larger tree would sell for $25, which was a lot of money during the Depression, Hays said.
“Having a Christmas tree in 1936 — the middle of the Depression — was a luxury. You were doing well if you could afford a tree,’’ he said.
The big trees went to the big homes and to the automobile agencies.
“The auto agencies would vie for the biggest Christmas tree they could get. It’s sad to see that they don’t decorate like that anymore,’’ he said.
Hays can recall how certain, well-heeled customers were given special attention.
“Mrs. Harrison Rogers (wife of the former publisher of The Joplin Globe) would drive up in her LaSalle limousine,’’ said Hays. “She was a real lady. We served the cream of the crop in Joplin — the people who still had money in the Depression. They came to us because we waited on our customers.’’
And they were not just from Joplin.
“Every year, this chief of an Indian tribe down by Wyandotte (Okla.) would drive up in the biggest Lincoln you have ever seen,’’ he said. “They took care of themselves. They would sack up what they wanted. They did it themselves. That car would be loaded with sacks of groceries. We’re talking about a $100 worth of groceries.
“You must remember that there were no big grocery stores back then like we have today. It was all mom-and-pop stores,’’ he said.
Because of that, the Hays family fared relatively well during the Depression.
“We were fortunate. A lot of kids came to school with holes in their shoes,’’ he said. “We always had food at home. My mother would can the fruit that was passed up by the customers. We also sold Monarch brand canned foods out of Chicago. Our coffee was shipped up from New Orleans. It was French Market coffee. We sold it for 98 cents a pound.’’
Still, it was a rough go for the family. Hays’ brother, Frankie, suffered from infantile paralysis as a child. He remembers how his mother would buy olive oil by the gallon. She would heat the oil to massage the limbs of her son, who eventually would be treated at the Shriner’s Hospital in St. Louis.
“They wanted to know exactly what she did to help Frankie with his polio because whatever she did made it easier for them to help him recover,’’ he said.
Fruit baskets were an integral part of their business during the holidays.
“We made 500 to 550 fruit baskets a season,’’ he said. “The dried fruits all came in bulk. The dates would come in blocks that were two-feet wide. They were solid. They were imported from the Far East. We would pick those dates off and put them in one-pound cartons with cellophane.’’
A basket of fruit would sell for $5.
“We never put grapefruit in a basket. They were too big. We put in apples and oranges and nuts — the best you could get. The baskets were filled,’’ he said. “During the Depression, a basket of fresh fruit was a wonderful gift to get.’’
Hays’ father imported his baskets from Japan and China, placing his order before Thanksgiving.
“We stopped using those baskets on Dec. 7, 1941,’’ he said. “In the middle of the night, my dad put those baskets in his pickup truck and took them to the city dump. My dad burned all of those baskets.
“It ruined our fruit basket business that year. From then on, we used Mexican baskets. They were inferior to the baskets from Japan, but there was no way we could use them — not after the attack on Pearl Harbor.’’
ON THE RADIO: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written in 1934 by Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and became an instant hit.
AT THE TOY STORE: Sock monkeys with red heels were a popular toy during the Great Depression, as was the Red Ryder BB Gun, made famous by the movie “A Christmas Story.”
CHRISTMAS REALITY: The average cost of a new house in the 1930s was $3,925, a gallon of gasoline cost 10 cents and a pound of hamburger cost 12 cents, but the nation’s unemployment rate also peaked at 25 percent during the Great Depression.