Doak Walker resident remembers how cookies carried her family through Great Depression
Steamboat Springs — Living on Long Island during the heart of the Great Depression, Irene Glenn got creative to bring Christmas spirit into the life of her toddler daughter, Susan Hagar Ewing.
The family, which included Irene’s parents, got their first Christmas tree just before Ewing turned 3 but didn’t have the money for fancy decorations.
“Mother recalled a German tradition of hanging cookies on the tree and set to work,” Ewing wrote in an informal memoir she penned last year to share with her family. “Leafing through my storybooks, she found designs for familiar characters. Having had some training in art, she transformed the designs into paper cutouts, rolled out gingerbread dough and cut the designs with a stencil knife.”
The intricately frosted cookies appeared on the tree Christmas night, and creating new cookies each year became a family tradition.
Glenn’s father created wooden and brass cookie cutters to simplify the process, and more characters were added to the collection every Christmas.
Having left her job as a clinical psychologist to care for Ewing, Glenn struggled to provide for her daughter and parents during Ewing’s upbringing, so when a friend suggested selling the cookies, Glenn pursued the idea.
“It was about 1940 when Mother began to test the idea of selling them, and we found a little shop in the concourse beneath Rockefeller Center,” wrote Ewing, who, 75 years later, has found her way to Steamboat Springs, where she is a resident in the Doak Walker House at Casey’s Pond. “The cookies were an instant sellout.”
But despite the initial popularity of the cookies, times remained tough for Ewing’s family, and when reverse mortgages on the family home finally ran out, they were forced to move.
Despite the odds, the family found a gardener’s cottage on a large estate to move into, and the cottage had a miraculously large kitchen inside.
“The cookie business could expand,” wrote Ewing, who would have been about 12 years old at the time.
But the blessing of the kitchen came alongside the setback of the war, and rationings for sugar and shortening were in place.
“Friends saved ration coupons, and finally, we got a reasonable allotment and managed one way or another to get our supplies,” wrote Ewing. “We could not keep the little shop in Rockefeller Center supplied, the demand was so great!”
Then came the day when the family cookie business was “discovered,” Ewing wrote. New York Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford saw the cookies and wrote a column about them, causing a greater surge in sales. More articles by Paddleford and other publications over the years always caused a “onslaught of customers.”
The cookie creations expanded, including themed character cookies for Halloween, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day and were featured in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
When the family’s gardener’s cottage was sold, they were again graced with good fortune in the form of a small apartment with a large kitchen above one of the shops that sold their now-famous cookies.
By that time, Ewing was entering college, and Glenn’s parents had died, making the small apartment “just enough for Mother,” Ewing wrote.
When Glenn fell ill with arthritis in the next decade, commercial cookie production dropped off, but making the cookies is a tradition that has lasted a lifetime for Ewing, now 85.
Living with progressive Parkinson’s disease, Ewing last year chose to write down the story of her mother’s cookies, which became her cookies during her adult life, though she acknowledges her cookies were never as good as Glenn’s.
“She’s very critical,” said Ewing’s son, Jon Duncan Hagar, who lives with his wife, Laura Hagar, in Hot Sulphur Springs, just east of Kremmling.
Retired, and having more time to devote to his aging mother, Hagar moved Ewing to Casey’s Pond last Thanksgiving.
While Ewing is hopeful the family tradition of cookie creation will be carried on, Hagar is one of Ewing’s four boys, none of whom have the artistic touch with the frosting their mother and grandmother did.
To help with the magic of creating the cookies, Glenn’s original blue-striped bowl, pastry board, stencil knife and cookie cutters are spread amongst members of the family.
Luckily, one of Ewing’s sons, Andy, has a partner who is a trained pastry chef, so there’s hope the cookies will remain part of the family for years to come.
However, just remembering the cookies and what they meant to Ewing’s family may be the most important piece of family history to carry on.
“It’s my mother’s story, really,” Ewing said Wednesday, “because this tells how, in the face of adversity, something lovely comes.”
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