Oxford Vignettes: Christmas Time in Oxford

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of the family who lived up the street. Throughout their lives they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as ferry Captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind, they were a pleasure to know.

The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

In this undated photograph, Sara and Bill Benson sit on their front porch in Oxford.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913, and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in an apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son Dale Jr. was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80 to 105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day, which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

Christmastime in Oxford, 1952

December 14, 1952. Singing in the Choir. Sunday, cold, raw, sunny day with a little snow flurry this afternoon. Mother didn’t feel so well when she woke up so she stayed in bed until 1:30. Bill went to the ferry as usual, Dale and I took the Island children to Sunday School. Dale sang with the Jr. choir during church. Judy Loscomb and Sherry Applegarth sang the second verse of Silent Night. Bill and I went to church tonight.

December 16, 1952. Mother is Not Well. Sunny, nippy day. I heard mother awake a little after 7 and I went in her room. She had pain in her side and a fever of 100. I called Dr. Harrison and he said he would be down sometime this morning. Dr. Harrison arrived at noon and found congestion on mother’s right side. He started her on Terramycin and said he should be back to see her tomorrow. I went to Easton long enough to buy 38 gifts for the children in Dale’s school room and to get a poinsettia that mother had ordered for Mrs. Sadie Mears, her secret pal class sister. At 4, mother’s temperature was 101. I left the poinsettia at church as the class party is there tonight.

December 17, 1952. Writing Christmas Cards. Beautiful sunny day but cold. Mother’s temperature was 101 at 8am and 102 by noon. I am really worried. Dr. Harrison came and said there was improvement in the congestion of her right lung. He wrote a prescription of more Terramycin. Bill went to the town commissioners meeting tonight. I got a few more Christmas cards written but my throat was sore and so I gave up and went to bed at 11.

December 19, 1952. The Christmas Tree Arrives. Mother’s fever has been 101-102 for days. The Sunday School Christmas party is tonight at the church. Brother Joe brought us a Christmas tree this afternoon.

December 21, 1952. Church Pageant. Dr. Harrison phoned to check on Mother’s condition, her fever is still with her. She has also been sick to her stomach. When Bill got home he set up Dale’s train. Bill played the part of Joseph in the church pageant tonight. It was after midnight before I got more cards written and all 38 gifts wrapped for the school children for the party tomorrow from the P.T.A. I sure hope I can hold out til after Christmas Day anyway.

December 22, 1952. Santa at the Park. Mother has had a fever all day, Dr. Harrison phoned to check on her. I went to the school program and it was very good and well attended. Dale, from Mrs. Willis’s room played Josiah in “Second Christmas.” He did very well and I was very proud of him. I couldn’t stay for the party afterwards as I had to get back to mother. At 7 tonight Bill took Dale up to the park for the Lions Club Christmas Party. Santa was there. I went to bed after midnight, there just isn’t enough time…

December 23, 1952. Carolers & Trimming the Tree. Very high tide. Earnest Holland brought us our 19 lb. turkey this morning. Bill got our pine tree in this evening and Bill and Dale trimmed it while I fixed the turkey, etc. About 11pm we were so pleased to hear carolers. They sang under mother’s window, the music was so sweet and beautiful. They were the young people from the Holiness Church. We appreciated it so much.

December 24, 1952. Christmas Eve. Dr. Harrison came to check on mother today and her fever has finally subsided. He said if she was up to it she could come downstairs tomorrow for a little while. Dale played with Teddy Deyo this afternoon. It was 6:45 when Joe Newnam, Hazel, Sue and Debbie came. Bill Newnam didn’t come because he had to fly to Baltimore. We all gathered in mother’s room and opened our gifts. We had cakes and cookies. It is so wonderful to have our tree all trimmed. It was after 1 am by the time I got a bath and went to bed.

December 25, 1952. Christmas Day. Our 16th wedding anniversary. A beautiful day, sunny and mild. Dale woke us up at 3 am and wanted to get up. From then til 6 he’d call every little while, then he finally went to sleep and slept til 8. As soon as he woke up we all rushed down so happy and excited. He took his sock and gifts up and opened them on mother’s bed. He was so pleased with his cub scout watch. He also got a saddle bag for his bike among other gifts. It was heavenly to have Bill with us for the entire day! Bill Newnam took Debbie and Sue for a ride on his boat he is keeping at Oxford Boatyard. Bill and Dale gave me a Stieff Corsage fork. I just love my silver.

December 29, 1952. Family for Dinner. Cold but sunny. Mother is doing better. Cleaned most of the day, and made cherry cookies. Joe Newnam came by ferry at 5:45. Then Bill Newnam, Hazel, Sue, Debbie, Peggy and Gertrude arrived. For dinner – fruit cup, sliced turkey, hot baked ham, candied sweets, mashed whites, string beans, buttered carrots, corn, cranberry sauce, pickles, gravy, bread and butter, coffee, pineapple upside down cake and ice cream. We spent the evening talking and watching TV. It was about 10 when they left. We really enjoyed having them.

December 30, 1952. Oysters for Aunt Annie. Cold, Mostly Sunny. Bill and I bought a pint of oysters to take to Aunt Annie. We stopped by Dr. Harrison’s with a box of cookies I made for them. We went on to Hazel’s to see the bikes they bought the girls and the picture of the Grapevine House Bill had John Moll draw for them. It is just like the one we have. Ted Deyo played with Dale this morning and Bobby Valliant played with Dale for the afternoon.

December 31, 1952. Last trip of the Claiborne Ferry. Rained all day long and sometimes poured. Tonight it sleeted quite hard and got windy. I baked brownies. Mrs. Annie Stewart spent the afternoon with Mother, it did her so much good. Louise Deyo came at 5 to visit. I read a story from the Ladies Home Journal. At 6:55 pm The Emerson C. Harrington II docked at Claiborne. She had just completed her last run across a 4-mile stretch of Eastern Bay from Romancoke. The trip signaled the end of an era which began 34 years and 11 days earlier on June 19, 1919, when the ferry crossed the Bay from Annapolis to Claiborne. Captain John “Jack” Higgins piloted the last run. He is Helen Crockett Higgins’ son.

The Claiborne Ferry, circa 1949, ceased operation at the end of 1952 after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened earlier that year, ending the era of Bay ferry service.
Photograph courtesy of The Sara Benson Collection.

A note for readers. Sara’s diaries are precious as they bring to the forefront a time not long ago that in a way seems so distant from our modern life. I cannot express how much I have enjoyed bringing the Oxford Vignettes to Attraction readers this year. As a tribute to the wisdom of Mrs. Sara Benson, I will share a quote that fell out of the 1952 journal at my feet, as it was meant for me to read. Later I looked it up, and while it wasn’t original to Sara (written by Stephen Grellet, 1773-1855, a prominent French American Quaker missionary), it holds true to her spirit and is a wonderful sentiment as we look upon a new year ahead.

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any [fellow creature], let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Note: Sara substituted “fellow creature” for human being.

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