Things That Matter: Ellen Hixon’s gravy boat
La Crosse County Historical Society

In just five days, Americans will go into their cabinets and china cupboards to find a serving dish, similar to this one, for the Thanksgiving table. Many of us don’t use a gravy boat on a daily basis — or even ladle gravy all that often — but what would Thanksgiving dinner be without gravy? Naked, that’s what.

This gravy boat belonged to Ellen Hixon, the wife of lumber baron and wealthy businessman Gideon Hixon. It is French Limoge porcelain, decorated with transfer images of flowers and butterflies, which have been additionally highlighted with touches painted by hand. Part of a late 19th century set that includes more than a dozen serving pieces and 18 dinner plates, this isn’t stuff you put in the dishwasher. But remember — the Hixons had servants for such tasks.

The gravy boat shows the most wear of any piece in this set of dishes, with a telling chip at the spot where the gravy ladle rested, and another on one corner of the saucer. My own gravy boat, passed down from my husband’s grandmother, has exactly the same chipped pattern.

As the matriarch of a large family with five sons, and lots of social and business contacts, I suspect Ellen Hixon had some of the same challenges around the dinner table at Thanksgiving as the rest of us. Societal expectations of harmony and gratitude can butt up against personality differences, family dynamics and politics.

We know that Frank, the eldest Hixon son, married a woman Ellen could not stand. And that the middle son, William, dreamed of studying music and literature but was obliged to follow his father and older brothers into the lumber business.

And between 1885 and 1895, a populist upstart and political outsider named Frank Powell was elected mayor of La Crosse. This colorful and unorthodox figure may well have polarized voters and created discord between family members, much like someone else on today’s national political stage.

Thanksgiving at the Hixon table may well have been in just as much need of the balm of gravy, poured over the slights and indignations of family life, as our own. It is one meal where the gravy boat still matters, a soothing family tradition in which we can all take comfort.

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