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Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Appalachian Christmas Memories

With Christmas coming on rapidly, I have written one post about Christmas in Appalachia and have continued to think about aspects of the Christmases of my past.  I listen to radio station WSGS-FM 101.1 nearly every day.  As Christmas nears, they begin playing brief nostalgic tape from their 60 years on the air.  A big part of those clips is the work of former owner Ernest Sparkman.  As a child, I ran home from school nearly every day after Thanksgiving to listen to Ernest Sparkman play Santa Claus and read letters from the school children of Eastern Kentucky, North Eastern Tennessee, and Western Virginia.  He had a Santa Claus laugh which was infectious even if it was less than perfect.  WSGS has always had a broadcast tower on the top of Rattlesnake Mountain near Hazard which is one of the highest points in Kentucky.  That combined with their 100,000 watts of power allowed them to boom a signal over chunks of 4 or 5 states in Appalachia.  So children within a couple of hundred miles would listen to Ernest Sparkman and write heartfelt letters to Santa.  The station can still be found on the Internet at  They are well worth listening to still today. Their eclectic mix of classic country, bluegrass, and old time mountain music is, in many ways, a reflection of Appalachia itself.  And they play more Christmas Bluegrass than any other station I know.

Ernest Sparkman at WSGS Radio. Photo by WSGS.

I also usually listened to WDOC radio in Prestonsburg, KY, which was owned and operated by Gorman Collins who was nearly as unique as Ernest Sparkman.  He also played Santa Claus but covered less geography due to lower wattage and altitude.  When scheduling was perfect, I could listen to both Santa shows each day and wrote nearly identical letters to both Santas.  I do not recall that I ever thought my way through the differing voices, station call letters, etc to wonder why there were two Santas covering Eastern Kentucky.  But those winter afternoon appointments with Santa were a big part of growing up in Eastern Kentucky for thousands of children. I remember that once my letter was chosen as the letter of the day and I received by mail a rubber knife about 4 inches long.  No Santa in the country is giving away knives today, even if they are rubber, I am sure.

I am also reminded of several of my favorite Christmas gifts over the years.  My half brother, Ballard Hicks, Jr., and his family usually came in from the Cleveland area.  He had two sons, Steve and Fred, who were nearly the same age as me.  They usually bought one gift for each of us that was identical.  The one that stands out in my memory was a metal service station and car wash. 

Sears Service Station Circa 1966

I also remember receiving a Daisy BB gun when I was about 8 or 9 years old.  Nearly every boy in the area learned how to shoot at an early age.  We always grew up knowing that you do not point a gun at anything you do not intend to kill. And, you do not kill anything you do not intend to eat.  Overall gun safety was a natural part of growing up at the time.  When I was about 13, I got my first gun for Christmas which was a single shot 20 gauge shotgun which my parents had bought used. 

Money was not wasted even if we did usually have more than most of those around us. I was so excited to have my own gun that my parents let me take it out on the back porch in the dark and fire it into the ground in order to feel the kick. It is odd to know that, on that particular  year, we opened Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, which we generally never did. 
Daisy BB Gun

I also remember the Huffy bicycle with training wheels I got shortly after we moved to Beaver Creek. It was not a Schwin, since they were more expensive.  But, after I finally learned to ride without the training wheels, I loved to ride and often took it up the dirt road which led to the cemetery and rode down as hard and fast as I could.  This resulted in one pretty good cut to a knee.  Rain water had washed sand across the road and I rode into it at a quick clip and the front wheel sank and threw me over the handle bars in a heart beat. 

Huffy Bicycle

But most of Christmas was not about gifts.  It was about family and food.  I have written an earlier post about Thanksgiving and Christmas food.  I will not belabor the food issue again.  But during the holidays, most members of the extended family who lived within easy driving distance would come to visit.  Old men would come to the store to sit around the gas stove and tell stories of the times gone by.  Chestnuts would be roasted on the stove.  Old Christmas was still remembered and talked about.  It was a wonderful time to be growing up in Appalachia from about 1946 to 1966. 

Iver Johnson 20 Gauge Shotgun

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