Easter Memories From 1900: My Uncle's Stories
Stories Left by Uncle Charlie
My Uncle Charlie (Charles Copeland Burg) died in 1961 at the age of 72. He was my grandmother's younger brother, a confirmed bachelor, a newspaperman by trade, and a fairly well-known artist in Chicago. Recently, I came across short stories he wrote about his life in Livingston, Montana. The story below describes his memories surrounding Easter.
Uncle Charlie Wrote:
A week or so before Easter, as a young boy in the 1890s, I always went to McLeod’s Island searching for budded tree branches and shrub branches. I would pour warm water over the branches, place them in cold water in a dark place and hope they would bloom early. Sometimes, I was able to get a few blossoms on apple and cherry branches. I had better luck with branches of wild gooseberry bushes, which threw out pale green leaves and tender white blossoms.
There were very few flowers available to be used in homes and churches in Montana in 1900. Sometime around 1908, George W. Husted, the lovable druggist, had beautiful plants and cut flowers for sale. These had been shipped in from nearby states.
Once, a church, though not St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, had its altar and the rest of the church decorated for Easter in artificial greens and flowers, which I thought was in pretty bad taste.
If Easter came late and the winter had been mild, a beautiful wildflower called anemone or pascal flower could be found on Harvat’s Hill and in the hills near the old lime kiln in the canyon south of Livingston.
Livingston Women and Fineries
Most Livingston women at that time did not go in much for Easter finery. For one thing, it seemed to me that it always snowed or rained on Easter, and the women could not wear their Easter hats and outfits even if they had them. There were exceptions. Mrs. Frank Vogt, whose husband ran a saloon, was always lavishly dressed at Easter.
My sister Ernestine also enjoyed fineries. I have a picture of her dressed and ready for church with her stylish gloves, hat, and parasol umbrella. She appears very proud of herself! I do recall one hat in particular that had a huge ostrich feather waving on the top. She kept that hat for many, many years.
Another exception was a young girl named Lorena DeGroat. Her father was a railroad engineer. I always ran out of St. Andrew’s church after Easter services and raced to the front of the Methodist Church, where I hoped to have a glimpse of Lorena.
Easter in Livingston has some bitter memories for me. One year, my teacher decided to have a school program at Easter time. My mother, Cynthia Weymouth Burg, said she was going to my school room on the day of the program. I cried long and hard and finally blurted out to my mother, who was tall and heavy, “Don’t go! All the children will know how fat you are!” My mother cried, and my father beat me soundly with a piece of stove wood.
A year later, I was in confirmation class. We were to be confirmed by the bishop on Easter Sunday. The night before Easter, the class met for the last time. Reverend Mr. Sutton, a most proper Englishman, asked me to explain the Immaculate Conception. I foolishly replied, “I will explain it, but I don’t believe it.”
The reverend’s face grew bright red. He ordered me to go to the vestry and wait. I was later told that I could not be confirmed. I went home weeping. My mother joined me in tears. My father swore. Reverend Sutton was very strong, and I was not confirmed that year. The next year, I kept quiet as a mouse and was finally confirmed.
Losing My Mother
The most terrible time of my life began two days before Easter in 1900. My mother, to whom I was most devoted, perhaps too deeply, died on Good Friday of pneumonia. My older sister, Ernestine, insisted that my mother’s funeral services be held in the church on Easter Sunday. The Reverend Mr. Sutton refused her request. My sister cried in the church rectory and on the church steps. Her tears prevailed, and my mother’s funeral was held in the church after the Easter morning services.
My father bought me a long black overcoat for the funeral. I did not take the coat off until summertime more than a year later. I wore it during all the hot summer after my mother died. It was a protecting garb for me. I did not want anyone to sing or laugh after my mother died, and no one did for a long time, at least near me. Perhaps they looked at me in that long black coat and just said nothing.
A Happier Time Remembered
I remember one happy Easter in Livingston. I never see Easter eggs without thinking about that occasion. I was a small boy at the time. My mother had kept a cow in the stable on the rear of our big lot on South Second Street. There was a loft for hay, and beneath there was a manger to which the cow was tied. When the cow had a calf, my mother sold it for $7.00. She was elated. She bought some new curtains.
The cow had been gone for some years, but the manger remained. That particular Easter, my sister, Ernestine, led me by the hand into the barn. There in the manger she had made a nest of hay, and in the nest were one blue and one red Easter egg. The eggs were a beautiful site [sic] in the grimy old barn.
An Eccentric Old Man
Last year, although I am now an old man, I could not put the episode of the eggs in the manger out of my mind. At Easter, I went to a riding stable near my home in Chicago, where I live now. I took a handful of hay and carried it home where there is a small patio. There in the patio, I made a nest out of the hay. I prepared some Easter dyes and colored two of the biggest eggs I could find, one blue and one red. I placed them side by side in the nest. Then I stood back and looked at the nest and began to cry, cry in joy, not in sorrow. Of course, the neighbors exclaimed, “That crazy old artist is at it again.”
Copeland Charles Burg
- July 10, 1960 - This Burg Is Sophisticated Primitive | Chicago Tribune Archive
If you are interested in learning more about my uncle Copeland C. Burg and his art, this link will take you to a 1960 article clipping from the Chicago Tribune.