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Gaye LeBaron: Depression-era Thanksgiving feast in Humboldt was ‘the real thing’

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There is a theory, tested by time, suggesting that when it comes to traditional holidays, all columnists have just one good story in them, no matter how long their tenure and how hard they try.

I’ve written a lot of Christmas and Thanksgiving columns since I first put pen to paper, metaphorically of course, in 1959.

As I look back, some were OK — just OK. Others made little or no sense. But there is one, written in 1977, I have come back to, probably a half-dozen times, in the four decades since it first appeared. I am convinced, more with each late November deadline, that I simply don’t have anything better to say.

...

HOLIDAYS are a proper vehicle for nostalgia, and I want to tell you about a Thanksgiving I don’t remember. It’s one of those family stories that has been told and retold so often you could swear you were part of it. You know what I mean?

It was during the Depression. Actually, I have that same feeling about the whole Depression experience. I wasn’t actively involved, but I’ve heard it all so often I have lived through it vicariously. This is the second-best way to learn history. No, maybe it’s the first best.

...

BUT I WAS GOING to tell you about this Depression Thanksgiving. It was in 1936. We lived in rural Humboldt County. I was a year old. My mother and father and older brother and sister had left Sacramento for Humboldt seven years earlier, partially because of my father’s health and partly for the same sort of reasons that send young families back to the land now. Without the pot growing, of course.

The Depression was easier on country people. The lumber industry went on and while people worked three days a week for 35 cents an hour, they had work. And they all had a little acreage and grew their own food. And they fished and hunted. And shared with others. Somebody was always turning up on your doorstep with a whole salmon or a basket of tomatoes or a piece of venison.

People didn’t just help their friends, either. It’s a lesson for us in these days of dark suspicions that strangers were treated like your cousins next door. The Redwood Highway was full of migrants from the economic desolation of the cities — the Grapes of Wrath they called them after John Steinbeck wrote his heartbreaker about the Dust Bowl refugees.

There were people in broken-down, haywire pickups with everything they owned piled in back. Going anywhere and nowhere. Just going. There were people walking, walking up from San Francisco, 250 miles, doing what they could to eat along the way.

There was one fellow, Tom, who walked into Redcrest, the little town where we lived. He asked our neighbors for some work to earn a meal. They were retired and had no work to offer — until they found out that Tom played pinochle. They offered him 50 cents a day for some light yard work and a few hands of cutthroat. He intended to stay two days. He stayed six weeks, playing three-handed pinochle and eating like a king.

And we mustn’t forget the bootlegging. They had their share of backyard stills in Humboldt County and a gallon of quality homemade hooch sold for $1 on a Saturday night — or traded for a good amount of fresh killed deer and homegrown vegetables.

...

THERE, I’VE GONE off again. It’s the Thanksgiving I’m supposed to be telling about. My father, you see, was a good man with a shotgun and — in that week before Thanksgiving — he went to a Turkey Shoot, broke a remarkable number of clay pigeons and came home with 14 turkeys. That would be 14 LIVE turkeys, you understand.

They gobbled around in our chicken coop for a day or two while plans were formulated. Then he gave seven of them away to people who needed them and invited 75 of the closer neighbors (within a 5-mile radius) to share in a feast of the remaining seven.

It was a sign of a time when nothing was impossible. The seven birds were killed, drawn, dressed and plucked. A friend who worked as a chef at the Scotia Inn agreed to roast them and make gravy in the hotel’s kitchen. Then they rented the Grange Hall at Holmes Flat. Actually, they just “spoke for it’’ since there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t a member of the Grange. My dad used to say if you raised a little hell and could sing “Bringing in the Sheaves’’ you were eligible for initiation into the Grange.

The Grange Hall was the center of the social life.

Some of my earliest memories are of peeking through a crack in the door from the kitchen, watching while the red-haired piano player pounded out a march and men and women went from post to post — Ceres, Pomona and Flora and back again.

But that day, that Thanksgiving, people came to the Grange Hall bearing sacks of homegrown potatoes and set to peeling them. Women came carrying pies they had been baking for two days. Others stacked plates with sliced tomatoes. One affluent member of the group brought several cases of canned peas.

The dinner was a great success. About twice as many showed up as were invited. And nobody was turned away. The seven turkeys and the gallons of gravy ran out but the women in the kitchen just kept mashing more potatoes and opening another case of canned peas. My mother recalled that she’d never seen so many peas in her entire life.

It was a fine party. Nobody got drunk on backyard whiskey, as they had been known to at the Saturday night dances at the Grange Hall. Nobody called anybody else outside to fight, although that Grange Hall parking lot had seen its share of bloody noses and split lips.

When the last crumb of pie was gone and, I suppose, the last canned pea, one of the young men who always brought his accordion, took it out. Someone played the piano and everyone danced until they were tired, cleaned up the kitchen, locked up the Grange Hall and went home.

I wish I’d been there. Actually, I was there, asleep in a basket in the kitchen. But I wish I had been old enough to really have been there. I’ve seen a lot of fine Thanksgivings, but that one has always sounded to me like the real thing.

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