This year my Christmas letter to you reflects a time void of commercialism and non-stop shopping; but filled with love and the spirit of giving.
My grandparents, Marcellus Rice and Granny Ibbie Rice were married in the early 1900’s. They acquired a little scrap of land, added to it, nurtured it and built a magnificent two-story house and a very large barn on Bull Run Creek, a few miles north of Knoxville. They planted an orchard, built a grape arbor, a springhouse, added meandering rock walls, etc. and it became a showplace for the entire community.
It was one day in mid-December that my mother brought me, as a small tyke six years of age, to this bucolic homeplace to visit my grandparents. Granny was in the kitchen and Grandpa was sitting in front of the warm fireplace hacking and whittling on a pile of small logs. When he saw us his face brightened and he smiled broadly. He told me he was working on a little project and could use my help. Nothing could have pleased me more.
He said, “I am going to build you a small wagon so you can haul firewood, water and feed for the chickens and pigs.” We worked on this pile of sticks and small logs for hours. The day grew long, the weather grew bleak and I grew more tired. It was in the shank of the evening when Granny said supper was ready.
After the sumptuous meal, Granny said, “Rice, it’s about your bedtime.” She escorted me into the big unheated bedroom, got me two beautiful quilts made by her mother and grandmother and tucked me beneath them and the feather bed. She left the room momentarily and returned with two bricks that had been heating by the fire all day. She wrapped the bricks in a piece of cloth and placed them by my feet. I don’t remember when the bricks cooled nor when I fell asleep; but I do remember the old Dominicker rooster from his perch in the pear tree next to the window crowing for daylight.
Soon Granny came in from the kitchen and asked if I was ready to get up. We went into the big room where there was a lively fire going. Then I noticed it-my little wagon was complete and looking better than I ever expected! It had a coupling pole, a rocking bolster, and even a linchpin just like the big horse drawn farm wagons. Granny said Grandpa worked on it nearly all night.
When I got home, I was anxious to show my brother David the Christmas wagon. I ran to get him and he was just as excited as I was about it. We talked about all the things we could haul in it and we spent the next few weeks hauling water from the hand dug well, coal and firewood for the stove and feed for the chickens and pigs.
Years passed and the novelty of the little wagon waned and our attention sent on to other things. Then one day my erstwhile friend, Eliot Wigginton founder of the nationally touted Foxfire projects, was looking to write stories and take pictures of handmade toys from Southern Appalachia. I immediately thought of the little wagon Grandpa had made; but I did not remember what had happened to it. Eliot was interested and said he would come by in a few days to photograph it and get more information.
I decided to look for my wagon and Mother thought it had been relegated to an area underneath the smokehouse floor. After locating it, I cleaned it and made a few minor repairs. Eliot was so impressed with the wagon, that he wrote a story about it and included a picture of it in the Foxfire magazine and in one of the widely distributed Foxfire books. Today the Christmas wagon Grandpa built, along with its story, now has a place of honor in the Museum of Appalachia.
The technological toys and computer games of today seem to entertain and amuse children, including my own great-grandchildren. But, I doubt that any of them will elicit more fond memories than this roughly made little wagon my Grandpa made one cold winter afternoon, more than 80 years ago.
John Rice Irwin
Dec 14, 2018