Treasure Chest Thursday: Sharing a Gift from the Railroad

Benita (McGinnis) McCormick (1889 – 1984)
Phillip C. McCormick (1892 – 1981)


Indian Tree pattern teacups and double-handed
bouillon cups, part of a 1921 wedding gift to Phillip

and Benita (McGinnis) McCormick, from his employer, 
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Of all the wedding gifts my great-aunt Detty (Benita) and great-uncle Phil McCormick received  on October 3, 1921, this charming dinner service of English porcelain is still with us today, symbolizing the enduring love of an unforgettable couple.

The transfer ware set of “Indian Tree” china was a special gift from the management of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (popularly known as the “B &O”), where Uncle Phil worked as a freight service manager in Minnesota and later Chicago, Illinois. 
In the early 1900s, before automobiles became the primary form of transportation in the United States, the railroad industry offered its employees good pay, incentives for hard work, and job security.  The B & O treated its employees like family.  It encouraged them to save money, helped them buy new homes, rewarded them for personal and professional development, celebrated their marriages and the births of their children, and recognized them when they retired. It should not be surprising, then, that a gift such as this was a testimony to the railroad’s deep appreciation for Phil McCormick’s contributions and their best wishes for his future.

Popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Indian Tree china was first manufactured in 1801 by the Coalport Porcelain Company in Shropshire, England. It is characterized by a rising crooked tree branch amid an exotic floral array of flowers and leaves in vivid colors of pink, green, blue, yellow, and brown.  Graceful bands of brown and gold border and define each piece.  The pattern itself was inspired by either an old Indian or Chinese textile design, depending on whom you ask.

Salad plate, Indian Tree pattern.
Aunt Detty and Uncle Phil used this china on a daily basis. With her artistic love of all things beautiful, my aunt appreciated the detail and delicate colors of the dishes and the elegant way they looked on a simple white tablecloth.  On my weekly visits to their San Mateo, California, apartment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it felt like a privilege to help Aunt Detty serve dinner on them and wash them carefully afterward for her. 


After Uncle Phil and Aunt Detty died, their daughter, Jane (McCormick) Olson, inherited the china. She had her own everyday, off-white dishes in a lovely basket-weave pattern, but from time to time she liked to take out her parents’ china as a special treat, always referring to it by name.  “Shall we use Indian Tree tonight?” she would ask, a twinkle in her eye as she waited for the inevitable “yes.”  It was always a delight to see those dishes again, as they brought back fond memories. 

Phillip and Benita McCormick, on their 50th
wedding anniversary, recreate a pose taken on
their honeymoon in 1921.  October 3, 1971,
on their balcony, San Mateo, California.

About ten years ago, she called me on the telephone with an announcement.  “I want you to have Indian Tree after I’m gone,” she said matter-of-factly.  She memorialized her wishes in a letter shortly after that. Not wanting to think about her being “gone,” I put the letter away and forgot about it until her daughter Suzanne gave me the china some months after Aunt Jane died in 2012.

There is an Irish sensibility in me, passed lovingly down through the generations, that tends to make me want to put special things like heirloom china away for “special occasions.” But through the years, I’ve gained an appreciation for not waiting for a “special” day but living each day to the fullest. I still can’t bring myself to use Indian Tree every day, but I don’t wait for special occasions to use it.  It offers a cheerful and soothing reminder of family and days gone by as much as an opportunity to make new memories with the family present today.  It feels right to not only enjoy such an heirloom, but to add our own story to it.
Some day, God willing, Indian Tree will go to my children.  But it will be minus three pieces, which I’ll mail today to each of my sisters, who also loved Aunt Detty, Uncle Phil, and Aunt Jane.  They, too, will surely treasure it as much as I do for the happy memories of our beloved McGinnis-McCormick relatives. 


Copyright ©  2014  Linda Huesca Tully


4 Thoughts to “Treasure Chest Thursday: Sharing a Gift from the Railroad

  1. What an honor that your aunt willed that beautiful set to you, Linda! I can certainly understand your hesitance regarding making it the "everyday" set–but your sentiment about living every day to its fullest, plus making new memories to pass along that tie into those of the past is well taken, too.

    How sweet of you to share part of the set with your sisters. What a heritage it is to have family of which you hold such fond memories!

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