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Alpena local shares family story of Christmas in 1909

Courtesy Photo The Montgomery family is seen in this 1910 photo. Pictured, from left, are Lizzie, Willie, Betty (in front), Maggie, and William. This photo was provided by Anne O’Neal.

ALPENA — The year was 1909. The snow was deep, and the pockets were not. Christmas was right around the corner, with no stockings, no presents, and no idea where or if a holiday meal was going to make it to the table. But the Montgomery family was high on hope.

Anne O’Neal recalls her grandparents coming to America from Northern Ireland, and this is a story of a Christmas that seemed like it might not happen, but, by God, it did.

“They came over on the boat, with three kids, and their luggage, and a birdcage,” O’Neal said.

The family included William and Lizzie and their children Willie, Maggie, and Betty.

“They got off the boat, and they were supposed to go to Cheboygan, because my grandpa’s brother lived in Cheboygan,” O’Neal recalled. “So, they got on the train, and they ended up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, instead of Cheboygan, Michigan.”

She said arrangements didn’t work out with the brother, so they ended up in Alpena.

“They didn’t have a pot to pee in, nothing,” she said. “And he got a job at the cement plant, and part of it was called the Alkali, and he made 25 cents an hour.”

The Montgomery family lived in a house on Catherine Street, which O’Neal said she assumes they rented.

“So, this is their first Christmas,” she said. “They’d only been there a few months.”

Their son, Willie, was about 8 or 9 years old at that time.

“He was outside playing, and a sled carrying ice and on the top had Christmas trees, it was going down the street in front of the house, and a Christmas tree fell off,” O’Neal said. “So, Willie ran out after the driver and said, ‘Sir! Sir! You lost a Christmas tree!’ And he said, ‘Oh, Sonny, keep it. That’s OK.’ Well, he was just thrilled, so he hauled that Christmas tree home.”

When he got there, his mother said, “I don’t have anything to put on that tree. I have nothing.”

But they kept the tree.

O’Neal said that Willie’s mother, Lizzie Montgomery, had been making a small amount of money taking orders for Christmas cards from people in the community.

“Before Christmas, my grandma found out she could sell some Christmas cards by order, so she would go around town and get orders for Christmas cards, make a little money,” O’Neal said. “So that’s what she did. Literally, she ran all over town, she belonged to the Presbyterian Church, they had joined, got all the members, and ran all over town knocking on doors, and she got a lot of orders for Christmas cards.”

O’Neal said her grandma had taught herself how to read and write and do simple math.

“She sent those orders in, and she got all these Christmas cards, and she divided everything up, and she walked all over town delivering Christmas cards, and she made a little commission on so many. She made a little bit of money for Christmas,” O’Neal said. “And the company sent her a letter of commendation on how perfect her order was, down to the cents. She was so meticulous with her math.”

She had made a small amount of money, but there stood the bare tree.

“My grandma had a cousin that lived in Pittsburgh, was from Ireland, and she was fairly well-to-do, her name was Cousin Kate, that’s all I know,” O’Neal said. “Well, Cousin Kate sent a box for Christmas to them, with a little toy in for each of the kids, and I’m not sure what else. Well, my grandma was thrilled. She had never gotten that before, so Christmas Eve, she sat up all night, and she opened the box up, and she decorated that tree with all the wrapping paper, she cut out stars, and she cut out snowflakes, with paper, on the tree, and she made a paper chain, she put on some cotton balls.”

She had saved up enough money to get each child some fruit and nuts under the tree so they would be surprised and delighted on Christmas morning.

“So, the kids got up in the morning and had a Christmas,” O’Neal said. “But they didn’t have a Christmas dinner because she spent what she had on other things for the kids.”

Grandma Lizzie kept praying, and a knock came at the door the afternoon of Christmas Day.

“The Presbyterian Church ladies came over with a whole dinner for them,” O’Neal said. “And, my grandma didn’t want to take it. She was very proud. And they said, ‘You are going to take this. It’s for you and your family. It’s our Christmas for you.'”

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