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Margaret Masek: More than a century of holidays
November 25, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
In 1898, Margaret’s maternal grandparents traveled in a covered wagon with their animals and belongings from Laramie Peak. Her mother said she was so frightened because they had to cross the LaBonte Creek, which ordinarily wasn’t anything to cross but a rainstorm caused the creek to swell. The couple had forgotten to tie the wagon bed to the carriage, and the box floated off the wheels of the wagon. The horses, tied to the wagon box, became frightened. The kids and the furniture were floating downstream. For her mother, a 5-year-old girl, it was frightening.

Nearing her 102nd birthday, Dessa Margaret Masek (her maiden name was Allison) who was born in Mitchell Valley on Jan. 11, 1914, hearkened back to her family’s meek beginning and what the holidays meant to her.

Other than five years in Wyoming, from the age of 7-14, she has spent the majority of her life in west Nebraska.

Her grandfather, A.C. Morrison, one of the early settlers in Mitchell Valley, hosted the family’s early Christmas gatherings. Originally, from Virginia, he and his wife and his four children – which included Margaret’s mother Dessa Morrison – lived on a ranch near Laramie Peak.
Eventually, A.C. fathered 10 children. After Margaret’s grandmother passed, he remarried and had four more children.

Over time the family grew. The farms of Morrison’s progeny lined the road west of Mitchell Pass. “When we came back to Nebraska, I lived on one of those farms out there,” she said. “The first six kids all had a farm. It was quite a big family, and I was the oldest grandchild.”

When the family moved to Mitchell Valley, they were allowed to park at a neighbor’s and stay in a big barn until they built a sod house, then a log house, and ultimately the present-day house now occupied by the Herbert family – a house where the Morrison kin celebrated many Thanksgivings and Christmases.

The family moved from Wyoming to Nebraska “because they didn’t have a school up there at that time. My grandmother had been a teacher, and she had four little ones (including Margaret’s mother Dessa Morrison). At that time, Nebraska had a law – they set up acreages for schools, so that no child had to go more than three miles to get to school.”

Margaret’s mother Dessa had actually met the somewhat famous historical figure Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix, the inspiration for TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” “She took care of my mom when she was 10 years old and had Typhoid Fever.”

Margaret’s family moved back to Wyoming shortly after WWI in 1921. Their farm had failed because of government demands to grow wheat. After the war the prices dropped, and then the nation’s economy crashed. Margaret said, “People lost everything and that’s why we ended up going to Wyoming, to start new there. Those were rough times. One Christmas up in Wyoming, my brother and I got a lead pencil for Christmas. My parents had a hard enough time just paying for groceries.”

Margaret spent her formative years going to grade schools in Wyoming “before we came back to God’s country,” she said. “I started at a school that no longer exists. In second grade, I went to the Haig School.”
After that, Margaret spent two years in Big Horn Basin, one year in Casper, and two years in Lovell. After her eighth grade year at Mitchell, she attended Gering High School and graduated in 1931.

At school, “for Thanksgiving – there were stories of the Pilgrims and all the history lessons. We got to make Pilgrim hats, draw turkeys.
There was a lot of coloring done.”
Christmas was often the larger event.

“At Christmas time, we came back to my grandfather’s (house) for Christmas. The first turkey I ever had to eat was one of those years. I know we didn’t come for Thanksgiving because that wasn’t a long enough vacation. Grandpa A.C. bought this huge, great big Tom turkey. I’d never seen a big turkey like that before. In those days, you killed the turkey, and dressed the turkey. There were a lot of relatives there – cousins, aunts, and uncles. … Grandpa was from Virginia, so there was oyster dressing in the turkey. I never had oysters before.”

Margaret was the eldest of four other siblings, all brothers.

“At Christmas time, we always got an orange in our stocking,” she said. “We didn’t have fresh fruit in the winter time. We had dried fruit. I remember enjoying dates and figs … Mom bought citron and candy, cherries, and candied orange peel, made some cakes. Of course, those were wonderful. Everybody liked pumpkin pie, except my mother. She liked squash pie better. We raised squash and not pumpkins.”

While today’s families fill living rooms to take in football games after holiday meals, by contrast at Margaret’s family gatherings, the adults sat around a big trestle table in a roomy kitchen while the children sat at a separate table in the dining room. Afterward, she said, “there were dishes to do for the ladies. The children played. I remember the boys with their stick horses going around and around that table – some of them were fancier than others, but as long as you had a stick that you could hang onto and ride.”

Margaret on the other hand preferred reading books. “Grandma always had a lot of children’s books in the house,” she said. “That was my favorite thing to do. I liked to read.” Margaret preferred “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

For gifts, Margaret’s big family drew names. “You got a gift, and you gave one gift,” she said. “I don’t remember having any money when I was a kid. We made our gifts. You could draw a picture or do some sewing if you were so inclined, make a little pin cushion. I did embroidery when I was quite small. I learned to hem things first. We embroidered our dish towels. I didn’t learn to knit until I was grown. A lot of handwork went into everything.”

Part of the delight of the holidays was picking out and decorating a Christmas tree. For Margaret’s family it meant going out into hills to find one. “It was fun to say, ‘there’s one, there’s one. This is the best one.’ There were a lot of suggestions. My father had the final say-so. Even when we didn’t have anything else, we had a Christmas tree. And then we decorated it; people didn’t do decorations like they do now. At Christmas, there was a tree with candles, and strings of popcorn, and we made paper chains to go around the tree.”

As for the days leading up to Christmas, Margaret said, “When we shopped in Gering, at Cleo Burge Grocery, mom would take us kids in, and he had a candy counter. Every kid that came in, when mom finished her shopping, got to pick a piece of candy. That was something we did have at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Not too long after high school, Margaret was married at the age of 19 to Fred Masek, who was 28. Margaret had worked for two years at the Cheese Factory in Gering, which went broke in 1933. She met Fred in the offices there, and they wed in 1933. She started in the office as a gopher, then moved up the ladder to work as a stenographer and bookkeeper and ultimately, chief bookkeeper. “It was hard to get a job out of high school. I had taken a course in business. I had a scholarship to go to college but couldn’t swing it,” she said. “It was believed, because there weren’t that many jobs to go around, that if you took a job, that was one less job for a man.”

In the 1930s, Fred bought a filling station on the corner of 10th and M streets. Originally called the M&S, Fred renamed it Masek, later deciding to sell tires, and still later, antifreeze, among other auto related products. “I cleaned out our small garage at our house on 14th Street one day and when I came home that afternoon the place was full of tires. There was no place to put my car. Then he sold antifreeze, my basement was full of antifreeze, but he made a go of things. So, it worked out well. It grew and grew until it became Masek Auto Supply. He stayed in business until long after he retired. He was still going to the office. He died at 95 in 1999.”

The Maseks have seven children: Marjorie, Alan, Phyllis, Ann, Joe, Mary Louise, and Sister Mary Katrina. Joe is the owner of Masek Golf Car Company on M Street today. Their children and grandchildren have lived all around the world in various countries, including Mexico, France, Austria, Fiji, and a host of states. In all, Margaret has 38 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren. “They’re all trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Pausing to reflect on all that her family has been through and all they have accomplished, and why this time of year is so important, Margaret said, “This old world kind of goes like the tide, in and out of good times and bad times. There are times you have to turn it over to the Lord. … I have the belief and trust in the Lord that He made this old world. He wants the best for us, but He gave us that wonderful gift of making up your own mind. We have a choice. We need to take advantage of that in a way that thinks of the whole of creation rather than just me, myself and I. That doesn’t work and it gets you into trouble.”

While sitting for a portrait, Margaret said she always tries to keep a smile. She recalled a hymn she liked called “I’m a little sunbeam.” She said when she first heard that song, she decided then and there, that’s what she wanted to be.

Frank and Margaret Masek on their wedding day.

Courtesy photos The young bachelor Fred Masek poses outside his home in Gering’s early years.
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