hen the Pilgrims took time to feast and thank God for their blessings in 1621, they had no way of knowing that they were starting a lasting tradition. But 379 years later, Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday across the country.
Four of Searcy’s senior citizens shared some thoughts about Thanksgivings past.
R.C. McCourt [a member of the board of directors of the White County Historical Society] grew up in Pangburn and has many happy memories of Thanksgiving. “As a youngster, I remember Mom cooking up extra for Thanksgiving – things like baked hen and dressing, pork ribs and gravy, pumpkin and raisin pies, and buttered sweet potatoes.“In the late ‘20s, the Pangburn teams opened the basketball season on Thanksgiving afternoon on its red clay court. Those were great times; folks with full stomachs soon had hoarse throats from yelling for the home team.”
McCourt recalled that most of those long-ago Thanksgivings were happy and enjoyed by all, but there were a few exceptions. One of those exceptions was Thanksgiving 1926. A tornado leveled Heber Springs, and more than 20 people were killed, McCourt said. [R.C. is shown in the photo at left three years later, in the second grade.]
Thanksgiving 1944 also was a gloomy time because the war in both Europe and the Pacific was not going well, McCourt said. “and there was another Thanksgiving when some stores burned in Pangburn.”
Peggy Wisdom [Historical Society secretary], who grew up on a farm near Bradford during the Depression, remembers Thanksgiving dinners that featured chicken and dressing. “Mother made wonderful dressing on a wood-burning cookstove,” she said.
Some of her strongest Thanksgiving memories go back to the third, fourth and fifth grades at school. She thoroughly enjoyed hearing the story of the Pilgrims and the Indians. “Our teachers made a lot out of the Indians and the Pilgrims sharing their food,” she said. She also remembered drawing Pilgrims and turkeys. “We made our decorations,” she said. “We didn’t buy anything.”
When World War II came along, Peggy said holidays became less important to her family. “We didn’t think much about them,” she said.
Corinne Hart [also a member of the Historical Society] grew up in Letona and remembers the Thanksgiving school programs on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The children would dress up like Pilgrims and mostly did pantomimes, she said. She liked to perform and recite a well-loved poem that began, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather’s house we go…”
Schools were closed just for Thanksgiving Day back then. It would be a while before the students would get Friday off, too. Hart remembers Thanksgiving Day as “a celebration of simple things.” The family would gather at her parents’ home, with some relatives coming by buggy or wagon. As Hart’s five brothers got old enough to date, their girlfriends would be invited as well.
A big fat hen would be the main dish, complemented by dressing, garden vegetables and homemade biscuits. Hart said her father was a Methodist minister, and on one Thanksgiving, with everyone holding hands around the table, he prayed a lengthy prayer before the meal. When her youngest brother thought the prayer exceeded proper limits, he asked his father, “When are we going to eat? Are you going to pray all day?”
Hart said the children would go outside to play a game called ante-over. Two teams would play on opposite sides of a garage or other building. They would use a rubber ball, and the teams would alternate throwing it over the building. If someone on the other side caught it, his or her team would run to the other side to touch or hit the opponents with the ball before the opponents could make it to the other side.
The men would get together and talk about their crops, and the women would talk about their activities, Hart said. “Mother would leave the food on the table, covered by a cloth, and anyone could go back for more during the afternoon,” she said.
Paul Hickman, who also grew up at Letona [where he was photographed on the goat below in 1916], said, “We always celebrated Thanksgiving. It was a jolly occasion.” Everyone had a Thanksgiving dinner, and a prayer of thanks for the food and the well-being of the people was a part of the day, Hickman added.
He remembered one year, 1918, when Thanksgiving was overshadowed by Armistice Day, November 11, when World War I ended. People did so much celebrating then that to Hickman, who was 9 at the time, Thanksgiving, which came about two weeks later, was not nearly so memorable.
He said his family came 13 miles to Searcy on the evening of Armistice Day to celebrate. “There were no paved streets then,” he said. “The mills had tied their whistles down, and there was lots of noise. Men were shooting guns; people were driving around with their car tops down.
“Some men were shooting anvils. They were pushing powder in the hollow of the anvil and inserting a short fuse. It would blow an anvil into the air. The sheriff made the men stop because somebody might have gotten hurt.
Today, residents young and old alike enjoy Thanksgiving as much as the original participants. And if they can, they’ll try to keep it going for a few hundred years more.
(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society.)