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Christmas Dinner

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Andrew Jackson Sowell and the other rangers left their camp near San Antonio on Nov. 19, 1870 and headed north toward the Llano Estacado – Comanche country.

They rode more than 500 miles along the state’s western frontier, enduring rugged terrain, harsh northers and tangling with hostile Indians. As Sowell later recalled, he and his fellow rangers “suffered…many mishaps by the way and…lost our trailer [scout] to death.”

Twenty-three years later, sitting in the toasty comfort of his home in Sabinal County, Sowell described the ranger expedition in a letter the Galveston News published on Dec. 21, 1893. In the letter, the former ranger expanded on an incident he had only mentioned briefly in his 1884 book “Rangers and Pioneers of Texas.”

One day in the winter of 1870, the then 22-year-old Sowell and the other rangers in his company sat in a camp they’d made in a spur of the Wichita Mountains, just across the Texas line from Fort Sill. Snow covered the ground.

“The outlook for us was gloomy,” he wrote. “Everything snowed under; we had to scratch in snow banks to get wood for our fires.”

Not only were the rangers shivering in a cold north wind out in the middle of nowhere, they had run out of grub.

“Our supplies for man and beast were exhausted,” Sowell remembered, “our poor horses could only nip at the top of the coarse, dead grass which protruded above the snow.”

On top of all that, it was Christmas day. That it was a white Christmas didn’t much impress a bunch of young men scouting a dangerous corner of the state far from hearth and home.

“Our men were mostly from the counties of Gonzales, Guadalupe and Caldwell and had been used to good dinners on Christmas day,” Sowell continued. “My mind ran back to the old home in Seguin – father, mother, brothers and sisters around the well-filled table – all enjoying themselves and wondering where Jack was and how he was spending the time, and what his fare would be.”

Sowell and the other rangers wondered the same thing as they shivered under their blankets, their campfires more ornamental than warming.

That’s when one of the rangers cheerfully announced he would be providing Christmas dinner for all. (Back then, “dinner” meant lunch.)

“A large fire was raised and burned down to coals to cook by,” Sowell continued. “All the frying pans were brought out in which to prepare the meal, but as yet we could not guess what it would be as our comrade had a mysterious way of going about it that entirely left us in the dark.”

Then, Santa-like, the smiling ranger produced a “small lot” of shelled corn he had found in their baggage wagon.

“Poor horses, we have robbed them,” one of the rangers cracked when he saw what his colleague had scrounged from the wagon bed. (Sowell left unclear in his letter whether the ranger had gathered spilled corn or if he had found an overlooked feed bag.)

Once the Christmas corn had been equally divided into each squad’s skillet, the rangers added salt and parched the kernels over the coals until they turned a golden brown. Some pieces even popped into fluffy white tidbits.

“We enjoyed it beyond our expectations,” Sowell said of their simple holiday repast.

A jovial attitude made the modest meal go down even better as the rangers added to the menu -- in their minds.

“Everything which could be thought of was called for and was promptly handed over in the shape of a tin platter of corn, well salted,” Sowell related. “Some called for pie, sponge cake, jelly cake, custard, mince pie, fruit cake, iced tea, pound cake, dressed turkey, etc. They would receive the corn with ‘thank you’ and comment on its good qualities and the master hand that prepared it.”

Despite their dismal surroundings and the lack of any of the delicious food items they had conjured from memories of Christmas’ past, Sowell concluded, “we laughed, hurrahed and, in fact, had a good time.”

Every December for the rest of his life, remembering that snowy Christmas dinner of nothing but parched horse feed, Sowell felt thankful for what he had.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 23, 2010 column

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