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BEACON Senior News

Celebrating Christmas with the Soupeaters

Dec 05, 2016 10:15AM ● By Eileen O'Toole

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Sometime between November and Christmas, Al Look, who wrote a column for The Daily Sentinel, noticed many children in the soup line next to the newspaper’s building on Main Street. If children couldn’t afford soup, they couldn’t afford toys for Christmas, he realized. Look used his popular “On Guard” column to organize a toy drive and general Christmas celebration. It was called the Soupeaters Christmas event, and it took place two months into the Great Depression.

Many toys collected needed repair. Tom Leiper’s high school farm class made mechanical repairs, local dry cleaners cleaned dolls and Miss Glendenning’s high school sewing class made new clothes for the dolls. The Avalon Theatre and the Motion Picture Operators Union co-sponsored the drive by offering the space for the party and showing a movie.

The Depression hadn’t ended by 1930. The Daily Sentinel set up a relief fund office in the YMCA building, and local charities—including the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, Mesa County, local churches and numerous other clubs—organized the Social Service bureau while the Chamber of Commerce set up an employment office.

Al Look was still busy with Soupeaters. In 1930, more than 1,000 children and 259 families participated in the event. Knitted ties were given to fathers and 300 sacks of candy were added, according to a 1991 museum newsletter written by Judy Prosser-Armstrong.

The next year, the Soupeaters ran a deficit. A bridge tournament was organized for January 8, 1932 to help pay off the 1931 event and boost the event planned for Christmas 1932. Every bridge player in Mesa County was invited. Tickets could be purchased for 50 cents each at Copeland Apothecary, Reynolds Pharmacy and Mesa Drug. The tournament was a success and was held at the country club (now the Redlands Community Center).

There were many efforts in 1932 to help the city’s poor. Mrs. E. M. Coles, administrator of the relief fund at the YMCA, gave out 22 orders in five hours and talked to at least 100 people seeking some kind of aid—gasoline, clothes or work—in one day. Coles told the newspaper that she was giving out 30 gallons of buttermilk each day and bread loaves “for as long as it lasted.”

In the spring, local barbers who had noticed children at the Christmas party who needed haircuts offered two free haircuts a month to the city’s poor boys and girls.

In another effort, a group of men organized the Prosperity League, designed to hasten the end of the Depression. People across Western Colorado and Eastern Utah pledged to give preference to homegrown and manufactured goods, to purchase things they needed instead of making do and to keep their bills paid—all without outside aid. The national press discovered the efforts and spread the pledge nationwide.

Another Christmas rolled around. Franklin Roosevelt had just won the presidential election and the Soupeaters party was held at Mesa Theater, which showed the talkie “Huckleberry Finn.”

The soup kitchen wasn’t the only organization to offer Christmas dinner in 1932. The Elks Club fed more than 500 children by taking them in relays. While one group ate, the other group waited in warmth at Whitman School. The Elks event included entertainment, a large Christmas tree and Santa Claus. Members brought carloads of children from Fruita and the lower valley.

The community had held four Soupeaters Christmas parties by now, but the struggle continued. How many more poor children would there be next year? Hopeful signs popped up over the years. When the jobless found work they would often bring their own donations to the relief fund. Sometimes people would stop organizers on the street and offer a dollar.

In 1933, The Daily Sentinel noted that the “Christmas outlook is not quite so desolate for the really poor as it was a year ago due to the far-reaching recovery program.” But thousands were still “in such straits” and the Soupeaters Christmas would continue.

The Soupeaters Christmas organizers expected more than 1,500 children in 1933. That year, a Soupeaters Ball benefit made it possible to buy some new toys. Merchants opened their doors after closing on Christmas Eve to allow the Soupeater elves to buy the newly discounted leftover toys.

In 1934, local firemen were repairing the donated toys and “other community contributions were substantial.” The Soupeaters event was sent back to the Avalon Theatre, which showed “Alice in Wonderland” and hosted 1,656 children. According to Prosser-Armstrong, four children returned their tickets “because their fathers had found work and they wanted other children to have the opportunity.”

After Look suffered some ill health and stepped down in 1937, the Kiwanis Club took over. In 1938, the party was the biggest ever—hosting 1,923 children. The last party was held in 1939 as the economy improved. According to Prosser-Armstrong, a Daily Sentinel article claimed the event had served about 14,000 children and more than 3,500 families in its first decade.