Again, I will apologize to those who read this blog for historical content, this is a personal story from my history and while I have been told that I am “old” this is not a story of Colonial American history. This is just a memory I want to share.

I’m not sure why but this year I found myself in pleasant recollection of a bygone era.  Not exactly history, this was an event from my childhood but it is a memory of a world long replaced by modern technology and suburban life.  It was a simpler time but what I most remember was not the exhausting labor but rather the sense of community that labor created.  I was only ten years old but this Thanksgiving stands out as the one in which I actually ACCOMPLISHED something to be thankful for.

Why I remember this now I don’t know.  It was certainly not a celebration that could happen today, not just because it was a large gathering but also because everyone not to take part in a party or celebration but to GIVE something to someone who was in need.  Perhaps I am cynical but I feel that between our hyper consumer driven lives and our divisive politics of giving up a day of hard work without some remuneration or reward.  Sure, people donate to charities but generally that is easy, a few dollars here (written of on our taxes) or a few hours there (generally on the weekend) but to people still give of theirselves when there is not tangible benefit back to themselves? 

The gathering I remember was of over thirty people working hard all day and then eating together (a traditional Thanksgiving) but mostly this group assembled just to ensure that an old lady could stay in her home one more year and not have to rely on public charity.  She had carved out a life over her ninety odd years that was not congruent with our modern world of 1974 and we needed to see that she had the resources to live another winter in the manner that she was accustomed.

My mother had remarried and her new husband’s grandmother lived in a log cabin deep in the forest of western Arkansas.  It was a nice cabin but one that we would call “off the grid” today in that it was very basic, no running water or electricity and fairly rustic.  It would be an ideal home if the year were 1880 but by 1974 it was really a place out of time.  While this old lady was militantly self-sufficient, there was no way she could collect the 20 cords of firewood nor lay in the canned and preserved foods she needed for the winter without lots of help.  That’s were we came in.  All of her sons and their extended families came to this cabin once a year to cut, haul, split and stack firewood; can vegetables and simple meats; do the myriad of minor repairs needed by the cabin; and tend to the needs that a woman of ninety plus years could not safely do for herself.  We went into the forest, brought trees down on the mountainsides being careful not to create any unnecessary clearings or erosion sluices then broke those trees up into split wood of the correct sizes for her fireplace, heating stove, and woodfired cookstove.  Others made cooking fires in the yard and canned vegetables and fruits collected from the garden putting them up in mason jars.  It was a massive undertaking that started early in the morning and extended until well after dark. 

I remember this being a wild mishmash of modern chainsaws and tractors juxtaposed with crosscut saws and mule teams.  As kids, we drove mule teams up the roadside pulling logs to be split, we clambered onto fallen trees with hatchets and machetes to clear and collect small branches to be used as kindling and stove wood, hauled water from the well stirred pots and did all sorts of hard work.  By the end of the day, everyone was very tired but we also achieved a lot.  Kids today complain about using an electric vacuum cleaner on the living room floor.  We WORKED hard!  Sure, growing up on a small ranch made us more acclimated to this level of activity but we were also used to having all sorts of electric and otherwise powered tools to help.  The work was hard but fulfilling.  No one complained we just dug in and did it and in the end, we were rewarded with a great Thanksgiving feast.

Well, maybe you might not see it as a traditional Thanksgiving feast, it was on Thanksgiving Day but we did not watch the Macy’s Parade or the football game on television (no electricity) and there was no turkey (you try roasting a turkey over a wood fire while tending ten other cooking fires).  We roast beef and venison, lots of baked and boiled vegetables, and pies baked in that ancient woodfired oven in the cabin (or brought from home).  We sat on stacks of firewood on the tailgates of our pickup trucks and ate like we were starving.  There was way more food than we could possibly eat but we were hungry as we had worked hard all day.  At the end of the meal, lanterns were kindled (both oil fired and bright kerosene camp lanterns) and played cards, dominos, and told stories, lots of stories well into the night.

Eventually everyone said their goodbyes and left, most by car but a few on horseback and foot over the mountain.  I remember how quiet it became as everyone left (we were among the last to leave) and how bright the stars shown.  I fell asleep in the car on the drive home and remember being very sore the next day from all the work we had done (but still got up to tend to chickens and bring in the cows before breakfast).  Sadly, I did not get to go back the next year as that sweet old lady died that year and the cabin now exists only in memories.  This year, I recalled those memories of a true Thanksgiving celebration.

I don’t know what the modern equivalent, forty-six years later and a world apart could be.  By all accounts this experience was an anachronism even in 1974.  We need, however, to rekindle that spirit of doing something simply because it makes life easier for others.  For the last four years we have heard a lot about making America great, well it’s not the economy nor religion that makes America great, it the people, people who ACT on their convictions rather than just criticize others for not sharing them, people who BUILD their communities through hard work, and people who CARE about more than their own self-interest. 

Giving Thanks starts with “giving.”  Not of our wealth but of ourselves. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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  1. Michael, thanks for your wonderful Thanksgiving story. I have a similar memory, although not a Thanksgiving Day memory. When I was about ten or twelve, my family and many others spent a day scraping and painting the home of an elderly woman. I don’t remember who she was, or even precisely where it was, but from what I remember, she was someone’s mother or grandmother. It was an old farmhouse that hadn’t seen paint in maybe 40 years. Maybe somewhere in Wisconsin. My family, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends (probably around 50 people) all showed up on a Saturday morning with scrapers, brushes, ladders, and paint. I remember it as a large, traditional farm house. As the people finished scraping, painters would come in right behind them. Too young to scrape or paint, we kids carried paint buckets for filling, and delivered beer to the workers, while our mothers made the lunch meal. By evening, the house was completely re-painted. I also remember being very tired and falling asleep on the way home. This wasn’t the only time that I remember family and friends getting together to help someone who was in need, mostly by providing physical labor. Our family (and those we knew) were too poor to hire others to paint or roof their homes, so at least once a summer (so it seems in my fading memory) we spent a weekend helping someone with a house project. And likewise, there were times when others helped on our house. Although many Americans do continue to volunteer with a great many organizations, I don’t know that it is quite the same. The projects I remember were done without fanfare, no big fundraising, or photos in the paper afterward. Just people who recognized that a neighbor, or someone’s relative needed help. The only payback the knowledge that we are “all in this together” and maybe someday, if you needed help, others would be there for you.

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    1. Yes, there DID seem to be more community cohesion. I choose this story because it was on Thanksgiving but we were always doing something and EVERYONE was poor, we couldn’t just whip out a checkbook and write a check but we could swing a hammer or fix a fence. The Talmud teaches us that the best charity is that which is given without recognition or reward and that ethos was once universal (irrespective of religion).

      My wife runs a food cupboard in Rosland and she came home Tuesday remarking that a local church group just showed up and helped out, not for recognition nor any selfish motivation whatsoever but just because it was a good thing to do for their community.

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