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During the 1930s and 1940s, James Albert Dreher was employed with the school system of Foreman, Arkansas as a handyman, janitor, and he drove the school bus for over ten years. It was during this time he became Santa to the children of Foreman.
Some of Uncle James' former student bus riders came forward with delightful memories, assuring us the students well remember Uncle James. They recalled him singing to the kids, sometimes in Choctaw, his favorite language, and a sound they found fascinating and always quieted to. They recalled his kindness, how he always sensed when they had problems or troubles and how he went out of his way to cheer them. Mostly, the children of Foreman remember Uncle James for Christmas.
Each Christmas morning, students who rode Uncle James' bus, those who would not ordinarily have a Christmas, found a large box had mysteriously appeared on the front porch of their house. Inside were small gaily wrapped gifts, groceries, oranges, apples, candy, and nuts. Each box also contained a brand new pair of shoes for the bus-riding child. How did Santa know the size? No one knows.
The Christmas boxes remained the "Foreman Santa Claus Mystery" for many years. One year, several older students - perhaps ten or twelve years old - made the decision most children do at that age. They made a pact to stay up late or get up early Christmas morning and catch Santa in the act.
Several children didn't make it but those too excited to sleep were awake, up and dressed, waiting for Santa long before the dawn. What they observed became a treasured secret among the children of the community for many years to come. Uncle James' truck pulled up and James and Mela got out, got a box from the truck bed, carried it across the yard, and quietly set it down on the front porch. Some children remembered the sound of James and Mela's boots crunching in the icy morning snow. After the box was delivered, James and Mela turned and left just as quietly as they arrived – smiling, and sometimes holding hands. They got back into the truck and headed for the next house, where the children observed them repeat the pattern of Christmas box delivering.
The children never told their parents or Uncle James what they knew, fearing the gifts would cease. It was a secret the older children only whispered about. They knew who Santa Claus was. When a little one was finally old enough to be trusted with the secret, it was a crossing into the threshold of adulthood.
Times were hard in the 1930s and 1940s in Foreman, a rural farm and ranch area with a hometown-type downtown we can only dream about today. Hard-hit by the Depression and the Dust Bowl, families with a pair of new shoes received a major financial windfall. Oranges, candy, sweets and small gifts were luxuries only seen at Christmas.
Uncle James and Aunt Mela had one son, Billy Joe Dreher. Neither Aunt Mela nor Uncle James were large in stature, but baby Billy Joe was a big baby and he did not survive the birth. This is how Uncle James told the story:
”My son Billy Joe weighed over ten pounds and was 24" long. He was born dead in 1939. He was so big. You didn't take a woman in labor to the hospital back then and we had to have the doctor come to the house. We had to meet him about four miles off from the house with a wagon and team to get him to where we was living at the time and he'd come as far as he could in his car. The river was swollen and you couldn't get the car across, so I'd meet him with the team there. And every day he'd come down to see Mela while she was a-laboring. This went on for many, many days. Billy's head was just too big. You couldn't do nothing for the hurting. It drove her crazy. When they put the forceps on and pulled him to try to get him out, they broke his neck and he was born dead. He's buried in Tom Cemetery in Tom, Oklahoma.”
Uncle James and Aunt Mela were unable to have more children, so they adopted the children of Foreman. Aunt Mela eventually lost her mind to her grief and had to be cared for. Uncle James hired people to come in, keep the house, and be with Aunt Mela. After she died, James married Mela's loving and gentle caregiver, Marie (Franco) Yeager.
In October 1997, after a reunion in Little Rock, the family caravanned cars south to Foreman, Arkansas and spent the day visiting with Uncle James and Aunt Marie. I teased him about his long white beard and resemblance to Santa. I could tell he was thinking of something and his blue eyes really did twinkle.
In 2002, a family member ran into one of Uncle James' former bus students. She told the Santa Claus story and put us in touch with other students, who verified it. Now we understand that twinkle and the tug on his white beard. He was reminiscing! Uncle James told us many stories of his life, but he never said a word to anyone of this generous act of love and charity. Now we know. And now you know, Foreman, Arkansas.
James Albert Dreher died January 9, 2004, at De Queen, Arkansas. He was 88 years old. Graveside services were held at 2 p.m. on January 12, 2004. James was buried at Tom Cemetery, McCurtain Co, Oklahoma, near his parents, some siblings, his son, and his wives, Mela (Cowling) Dreher and Marie (Franco) Dreher.
Apr 13, 2004 · Reply
I am the great-grandniece of the first wife of Henry George Dreher, b. 1840 in Germany. His first wife was Magdalena Raunser, b. 1847 in Germany. They moved to Louisville, KY, where Henry died in 1920. I have quite a bit of information on his descendants and would be happy to share if he is part of your Dreher family. I do not know who his parents were.
Aug 06, 2014 · Reply