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Gurley Candles Kindle Memories of Thanksgiving in Louisville

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For me the Thanksgiving candle tradition began nearly 60 years ago, when my Aunt Lucille would take me to Woolworth’s in St. Matthews on Saturday afternoons. If the weather was good, we would walk from her home, which she shared with my grandparents on the edge of Seneca Park.

Sometimes I would be patient and wait with her while she went to try on shoes at Byck’s (one of the first downtown stores to move to the suburbs). I learned patience, as a boy, sitting in the shoe departments at not only Byck’s, or Selman’s, or Stewart’s, or Baynham’s. Or in the hat department at Stewart’s with my aunt, mother and grandmother. Or in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Occasionally I misbehaved—like the time I sat in the wastebasket filled with tubes of gift wrapping paper or the occasion when I decided to interact with the mannequins in Byck’s store window. Childhood is full of action and fun, but it is also a time of waiting: often for things that have no ending in themselves. I still wait in doctor’s offices, but I generally know the ending.

With Aunt Lucille, these long waits always meant treats. Maybe a matinee at the Vogue Theatre, or a hot fudge sundae at Pookman’s drug store, or maybe a record from Bittner’s or the Turn Table (imagine that St. Matthews had two record stores in the 1950s!), or maybe a treat from Woolworth’s. One of these days I may write the whole story of wonder that was Woolworth’s, but today I want to talk about their holiday specials, and most important of those, the candles.

I am not talking about the votive candles that people use to illuminate their mantles and bars, or the votives that are lighted in church. I am talking about the little candles shaped like Pilgrims and turkeys and Native Americans. These were stubby, simple, and cheap and, may I say, quite wonderful. When I see them (I still have some from my childhood, and my wife has some of hers as well), I can feel as though it is 1958 all over again.

I’ve done a bit of research. The candles originally were made by Gurley Novelty, owned by candlemaker Frank Gurley. Gurley Novelty opened 75 years ago in Buffalo as a spin-off of Mr. Gurley’s W&F Manufacturing Co., Inc. The Gurley line was commissioned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (now ExxonMobil) as a way to recycle paraffin that was a by-product of the oil refinery process. I like to think that my wife’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Payne, had something to do with this. He was an oil executive in Boston who, among other things, coined the name ESSO in the 1920s and co-created with Howard Johnson the rest-stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He was also an adopted New Englander who would have loved the images of that first Thanksgiving.

  Move along through the years. By the time I was a child, the line of little holiday candles expanded to Santa Claus, angels and choirboys and for Halloween, wicked witches and jack-o’-lanterns. They also created bunnies, decorated eggs and crosses for Easter. We never really cared for those much—our Easters focused on real chocolate eggs, bunnies and crosses and iced cookies from Plehn’s bakery.

The appeal of candles is autumnal. I am sitting here tonight with one of my surviving Pilgrim boys, who is looking at me across my computer table. The cardboard base of this (as yet unburned) candle reads: “Air currents may cause drips. Place on plate while burning. Copyright by the Gurley Candle Company, Buffalo, New York, Made in U.S.A.”

The price? Fifteen cents. Clearly this is a more recent candle, probably sold in the 1960s. In the late 1950s, when I first remember these being part of our Thanksgiving celebration, I think they were a dime apiece. Aunt Lucille would bring them to the table after we finished our pumpkin pie, and she would teach us to light matches and touch the tapers. Was there anything more amazing than watching these little Pilgrims, Native Americans and turkeys melt slowly but surely, as the flame grew stronger? We thought nothing of burning them since we felt sure there would be more at our table a year later.

When my wife and I were married, she still had a few of her Gurley Thanksgiving candles, as did I. We melded them, as couples will do with holiday decorations and traditions, but I will never forget one of our first Thanksgivings together, we had the candles on the table and I got a matchbook and started to light the taper of a Pilgrim boy. She was shocked. You can’t waste it, she said.

And she was right. Her frugal family had been very good about saving their candles, year after year, bringing them back out to enjoy again as decorations. In time, the Pilgrim and turkey candles disappeared from the shelves of dime stores—and before we knew it, dime stores disappeared too.

A few years ago, the Orton Family of Weston, Vermont, whose Yankee emporium The Vermont Country Story seems to select a perfect blend of practical, nostalgic and comfortable items, reintroduced Gurley holiday candles. They now sell a three-piece set of the Pilgrim man and woman and a turkey for $14.95 (substantially more than the 45 cents they would have cost in the 1960s!). At these prices, however, I doubt if many children have the experience of burning their Pilgrims after Thanksgiving dinner the way we did.

And so once again this week I carried down the plastic box where we keep our holiday candles during the rest of the year. The candles are carefully wrapped in tissue paper and kept in a room that doesn’t get hot in summer. One year, we made the mistake of putting them in the attic, they melted a bit, and ever since, one of the Pilgrim ladies has to lean against her man to keep from tipping over! Aunt Lucille, my parents and grandparents are all gone now, but the candles I associate with them—and now with my wife and my own children—remain to be enjoyed again.

Among the greatest treasures of Thanksgiving is that it remains a simple holiday. Guests are almost always exclusively close family. Celebrations focus on the bounty of the table, with maybe a football game or holiday movie (my favorite is “Avalon”) thrown in. Our forbears were wise to set this day aside each fall for gentle thanks and recollection. Once again I welcome it, and set out my Pilgrim candles to remind myself of the brave people who founded our nation.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. 

Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.