Thanksgiving is an American holiday which has traditionally centered on food, family, and friendship. Years ago, it also signified the end of the fall harvest and beginning of the cold and snowy months. This was especially so for those living in northern Minnesota. Everything that could be canned was, and the root cellar contained any vegetables and fruits which would survive the elements in a banked shelter. Fingers were crossed that there was enough in the pantry and cellar until the greens came up in the spring.
Over one-hundred years ago, Thanksgiving was often a time for an extended visit. LeRoy Gustaf “Roy” Olafson, shares a Thanksgiving story from 1918. His recollections were put together in a family booklet titled “Memories of Minnesota and Years Gone By,” in 1972 when he was about 76 years of age. Roy was one of ten children born to Swedish immigrants Johan and Augusta in Morrison County. Several members of the Olafson family homesteaded in northwestern Itasca (Moose Park Township) and northeastern Beltrami (Blackduck) counties.
When he registered for the draft in 1917, Roy learned that he had a ruptured blood vessel going to his heart, thus he did not pass the physical examination. The following spring, he went to look for work in the wheatfields of North Dakota. He was hired by a man who needed help managing his half section farm and to help run the threshing machine he had. The pay was to be $75 a month and board if he was a good man and could do farm work.
After a prosperous harvest, Roy wanted to go home for a visit. “It was getting late to be in North Dakota so I told my boss I would like to be here at Blackduck for Thanksgiving. Ruth [a sister] had gone to Chicago and Pa was all alone cutting timber. He had bought a cow and a heifer, 25 chickens, and had his horse, Big Frank. We had Thanksgiving dinner at Alma’s and Fred’s [a sister and brother-in-law]. We had a nice venison roast and all the trimmings. It was plain good. Things weren’t so rosy up here.
My boss had figured up my wages and he gave me more than I had coming. The check was for one thousand dollars! I kissed the kids, kissed his wife, and even kissed Archie, my boss! He wasn’t as hard boiled as he tried to act.
After Thanksgiving dinner, me and Pa went home to our place where father and son made up for lost time. We hadn’t been together for five years. We got to work getting things ready for winter. We hauled home tamarack wood and cut it up. We hauled some hay that I had bought from a homesteader. We started to clear some land around the house.
I stayed with dad for about a month. We had everything done for winter. I helped dad set mink and weasel traps on the Moose Creek that ran through our farm. We killed a big buck. My vacation soon came to an end.”
The following snippets are gathered from newspaper articles and advertisements published in local papers from about the turn of the century until 1920 and fit into those three traditional categories referenced above: food, family, and friendship.
The settlers living in and around Deer River and Grand Rapids had the added luxury of enjoying Thanksgiving food they hadn’t grown themselves. This was because both villages were located along the Great Northern Railway line.
Food not found in the north woods (beef was not even raised here yet) could therefore be procured from Minneapolis or Chicago. In 1898, the Metzer’s Market had quite a selection of poultry and meat [*spelling and wording exactly as they had it] in their advertisement.
Good things for Thanksgiving
~ Turkeys. Geese, Ducks, Chickens; Choice Cuts, Steer Beef, Legs Lamb Veal, Lions Pig Pork; Sausages Strictly Home-Made
~ Green Stuffs – Green onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Cucumbers, Parsnips, Celery, Sweet potatoes, Cranberries
~ Delicacies – Oysters, Clams, Lobsters, Blue-points, Mince-meat, Sour Krauts, Bulk & Bottle Pickles and Olives
~ Salad Dressing, Horseradish, Catsup, Mustard, Clam Chowder, Full Line New-Packed Can Goods, Game, Fresh, salt and Smoked Fish
The following year the BoDega Restaurant in Deer River,owned by C.T. Alexander offered a Thanksgiving Dinner with fourteen items and four different kinds of pie for dessert!
It wasn’t long before enterprising businessmen thought of ways they could be a part of the festivities. Throughout the years, several communities held turkey raffles.
G.T. Robinson combined a game of chance with a discounted price on poultry in 1901. “A turkey raffle will be given next Wednesday evening, Nov. 27 at G.T. Robinson’s saloon. Turkeys, ducks and chickens will go cheap to the best card players or lucky dice throwers. ‘Old George’ thinks he can play seven-up himself, but he is a snap for anybody in a four-hand game.” [Itasca News 11-23-1901]
Thanksgiving Raffle ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 11-21-1903
“A. M. Johnson, of the Boston Grand sample room and restaurant, has the reputation of holding the most successful and satisfactory raffles in Grand Rapids. Every year he is first in the field with a choice lot of fowls, including turkeys, geese, ducks, and chickens. He buys only the very best in the market, and if he hears of a choice lot he makes it a point to get them regardless of cost. His raffles are always conducted in a manner to avoid any complaint and those who participate are always satisfied. This year he has secured an unusually fine lot that was offered alive and dressed. He will hold his raffle on the evening of the 24th, so that all who wish to participate may secure their Thanksgiving dinner for a few cents. Mr. Johnson wishes to announce that no schoolboys will be permitted to take part in the raffle, and they will not be allowed in the room.”
Pete Peterson, owner of a hotel and saloon in Bigfork offered a similar event a few years later, but his was earlier, so the birds could be eaten on Thanksgiving. “Turkey Shoot and Raffle – at Bigfork Wednesday afternoon Nov 24th. On this date, I will have 50 fine turkeys shipped in and am furnishing you this opportunity of getting turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. Remember the date and come and get a turkey. Pete Peterson” [Bigfork Settler 11-11-1909]
Family ~ School Programs
The village and surrounding community of Bigfork held their first Thanksgiving program on November 25, 1903. Miss Katherine Costello, the teacher of the newly built school in the village had organized a program that included all of her students. In all there were twelve recitations from the older children. (Recitations are poems and short stories which are memorized.) The most challenging were, “Tommy’s Thanksgiving” by Cleve Larson, and Linnea Nordlin’s selection from “Hiawatha.” Between the recitations were songs by the entire school of about twenty. Thirteen-year-old Aminta Nordlin soloed with “Mother Goose”, and she along with several others sang “Five Little Gooses.”
The students were: Alma Larson, Cleve Larson, Harry Larson, Theresa McDonald, Aminta, Linnea, and Victor Nordlin, Robert Pedersen, Julia, Walter, and Alma Petersen, Bertha Rossing, and Jenny Shultis. They were all born in Minnesota, though about half their parents had emigrated from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany.
In 1915, Kathleen Keenan, a nine-year-old from Deer River, had a story she wrote published in the Itasca News. Titled “Bessie’s Thanksgiving,” it was about a girl named Bessie who lived in a large city with her parents. Bessie befriended Mary, a child her own age who had to work to take care of her sick mother. Bessie wanted to bring them a hot meal at Thanksgiving and figured out a way to do just that.
Kathleen was the daughter of George and Celia Keenan and always had a desire to help others. The 1930 U.S. Census indicates she is a nurse in Rochester, Minnesota.
Friendship ~ Entertainment
If someone is available to play the harmonica or fiddle, folks will dance. Thanksgiving Day was no exception. In Bigfork, one of the places dances were held was at the Pinette Hall. Although the musicians weren’t named, there was probably a full house on Thanksgiving Day, November 29, 1906. The advertisement in the Bigfork Settler stated, “Everybody is cordially invited. Good music will be furnished, and a good time promised to all who attend. Supper will be served in the hall.”
As the communities in the area grew, so did the variety of activities that were offered for entertainment on Thanksgiving Day. Examples I found include a wartime meal in 1917, and a boxing match in 1920.
Thanksgiving Festival ~ Itasca News 11-24-1917
“A community Thanksgiving festival has been planned. It is to be held at the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal] Church, Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 5 p.m.
The festival is to consist of a program and a wartime supper. The supper is to be donated by the community and served in the basement of the church, free of charge. The supper committee consists of Mrs. Keenan, Mrs. H. Seaman, Mrs. Mawhinney, Mrs. Bartholomew, W.B. Taylor and Mr. Shaad. Please help them to make it meatless and wheatless by donating your poultry, fish, venison, and best war breads. **
The program committee is Mrs. Wallace, Miss Moen and Miss Tabor, and they would be thankful if you would volunteer to assist them. A collection is to be taken for the starving Armenians and Syrians who are less fortunate than we. So, plan to make this a real Thanksgiving festival for in doing so you prove that you, too are thankful for your many blessings.
Fight Card on Thanksgiving ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 11-24-1920
“A boxing bout that promises to attract a large number of fans from all over Itasca County and from points even farther away will be staged in Bovey on the evening of Thanksgiving Day. The Bovey post of the American Legion is sponsoring the boxing exhibition and will have it in the Legion Hall in Bovey.
The curtain raiser will be a four-round exhibition between the Pelky brothers of Bovey. These boys, while light, are fast, and always get a good hand. Following them will be a six-round go between Bartholomew of St Paul and Swede Johnson of Grand Rapids. Johnson is rapidly securing a reputation as a fast and clever boxer and has a number of friends in Grand Rapids who will go to watch him in Bovey.
The principal match of the evening will be between Ed Franti of Bovey and Harry Boyle of Duluth. This bout is scheduled to go for ten rounds and will be a fast one. Both men are full of confidence and will enter the ring expecting to secure a decision. Bovey men are backing Franti to win and expect to see some exciting situations during this mill.”
In recent years, the time spent following the Thanksgiving meal seems to have focused on the shopping bargains the day after Thanksgiving. “The term ‘Black Friday’ (in the retail sense) was coined in the 1960s to mark the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. ‘Black’ refers to stores moving from the ‘red’ to the ‘black,’ back when accounting records were kept by hand, and red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit.” [blackfriday.com/news/black-friday-history]