Canton youth fill baskets 1958 Christmas

CHRISTMAS BASKET TRADITION — Canton youth helped fill baskets with food staples during the early years of Champion Fibre’s Christmas food program for the community. The photo dates to 1958.

The Canton Area Historical Museum will offer a glimpse back in time for Christmas, beginning with a nostalgic float in the town’s “There’s No Place Like Home” parade Dec. 5.

Complementing a special program, “Christmas Champion Style” in collaboration with the Canton Library Dec. 10, the museum will display baskets on its parade float reminiscent of baskets Champion employees used in the late 1920s to deliver food to less fortunate people in the community. While the mill program continues to this day, the baskets evolved into using cardboard boxes to simplify the delivery and avoid having to return to collect them for reuse.

The Christmas basket tradition actually began in 1925 when the company store filled 104 baskets with flour, beans, cornmeal, sugar, coffee, fruits, nuts, candies and toys. The baskets were then distributed to less fortunate families within the community.

Mill employees started their own food program in December 1928 when the late Frank “Happy” Smathers, a supervisor at then Champion Fibre Company, responded to news that a member of his crew was seriously ill. The crew pooled their money, purchased a good amount of food, gathered it in a basket and delivered it to their co-worker’s family.

That simple act of caring and compassion expanded the following year, funded by employee donations and later contributions from the paper mill as well.

Smathers led the collection and distribution of the food boxes for 30 years before passing the tradition on to his son, Jack T. Smathers, who continued his father’s initiative until 1981. Through the years. other employees, including Bruce Chambers, have made sure members of the community who need a little extra help continue to receive the food boxes.

Museum director Caroline Ponton reached out for stories about the paper mill’s Christmas food deliveries and has received several heart-warming stories that will be shared during the library program at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 10. The library is at 11 Pennsylvania Ave., Canton.

Canned or dry good items will be collected at the library program and at the museum through Dec. 21. Museum volunteers will be walking alongside the museum’s float in Canton’s Christmas parade to accept food donations. To complement what the mill workers deliver to families in the community, the food collected by the museum will be distributed at local food pantries.

“We also will have a drawing at the library program for a T-shirt with a catchy slogan for the museum,” Ponton said. “Canton Small Town with a Big History.”

The T-shirts were purchased courtesy of a monetary gift from Dan Murr to the museum. Murr, who was raised in the Fibreville community that originally housed mill workers, presently resides in Arizona.

Along with the food baskets, the museum’s Christmas parade float will feature some nostalgic toys and Christmas decorations.

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