Ellen Hixon’s Gravy Boat

By Peggy Derrick

Five days from now people all over the country will go into their cabinets and china cupboards and get out a serving dish similar to this one to use on their Thanksgiving table. Many of us don’t use a gravy boat on a daily basis, or eat gravy all that often, but what would Thanksgiving dinner be without gravy? Naked, that’s what.

This gravy boat belonged to Mrs. Ellen Hixon, 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 over a dozen serving pieces and eighteen dinner plates, this isn’t stuff you put in the dishwasher. But then, Mrs. Hixon had servants to wash it for her.

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 would have rested, and another on one corner of the saucer. My own gravy boat, passed down from my husband’s grandmother, has exactly the same pattern of chips.

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 that 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 in the lumber business.

And between 1885 and 1895 a populist upstart and political outsider named Dr. Frank Powell was elected mayor of La Crosse. This colorful and unorthodox figure may well have polarized voters and created discord between family members, just like someone else has done more recently.

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 we can all take comfort in.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 19, 2016.