Thanksgiving has been an official holiday in the U.S. since 1863, and the people of Illinois have found ways to celebrate the occasion ever since. Some of those long-ago Thanksgivings reflect both the past and future – and somewhat resemble modern celebrations.
Church services were a big part of the day in some areas. In Roodhouse, the Union service at the Methodist Episcopal Church started at 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day in 1932, continuing an annual tradition. The Jacksonville Daily Journal reported that "Roodhouse has always made much of the observance of Thanksgiving Day."
Football is a Thanksgiving tradition, now and then. In 1916, fans in Alton were gearing up for a Thanksgiving Day clash in town between the local high school and tiny Palmyra, from northwestern Macoupin County. Game time was 2:30 p.m., and admission was 35 cents.
The Telegraph reported that the home team was "outweighed," but "there was never a question as to who the victors would be" in a 32-0 Alton victory. The largest crowd of the season was on hand to watch. On Thanksgiving in 1932, fans in western Illinois also looked to a gridiron clash in Carrollton with visiting White Hall.
Movie theaters are busy places on Thanksgiving today, but film fans also had plenty to choose from on Turkey Day in 1916. In Alton, the Ouatoga had the silent film The Little Miss Brown, a love triangle described as a "comedy-drama." Across town at the Princess, another silent flick was showing, something called The Dumb Girl of Portici.
For the sporting types, there was a "big shooting match" on Thanksgiving Day 1926 at the Ortic Inn east of Carlinville, where "plenty of turkeys and geese have been provided."
Sometimes, though, gunfire on Turkey Day caused problems. That same year, the Gillespie Record reported that 12-year-old Alexander Fulton took a friend along "to assist him in shooting a chicken" on Thanksgiving morning when "in some manner, the .22-caliber rifle was discharged." Young Alexander was rushed to the hospital in Litchfield with a right shoulder wound, but was expected to recover.
Holiday dances were a big part of the festivities in the era. On Thanksgiving Eve in Alton in 1916, those who wanted to cut a rug could attend the Thanksgiving dances hosted by both the Elks and the Sunshine Club.
But food was the main attraction at most Thanksgivings, though the menus were somewhat different from today's. Though turkey seemed to win out, goose was also popular. In Gillespie in 1926, those choosing to eat out could head for Berton's Café, where the main dish on Thanksgiving was goose.
Duck was also popular, and some other selections might raise eyebrows today. A 1926 ad for Brady's Market in Gillespie was headlined with "An Abundance of Oysters for Thanksgiving."
An ad for the Star Bakery in Marshall in 1900 listed a variety of goods "to supply the table at Thanksgiving." Topping the list were "Baltimore oysters" and "Kalamazoo celery," another favorite of the time. There were also "oranges, bananas, lemons, dates, figs, raisins and currants, shelled popcorn and crackerjacks," not to mention "pickles, olives, pies, cakes and nuts," which were all holiday favorites in the day.
Then, of course, there was the shopping, and merchants were ready for anything. Two days before the holiday in 1916, Schweppe's department store in Alton ran an ad in the Telegraph, asking, "Are you ready for Thanksgiving?," since that holiday "ranks with Easter as an important date in the dress-up calendar. It's the one red-letter day when every man's wardrobe for the winter should be complete."
As a result, continued the ad, shoppers would "want a new suit, an overcoat, a smart derby, a pair of new gloves, a shirt, collars, and a tie." With all of that attire, it's a wonder that anyone worried about the Thanksgiving dinner. But, as Scheweppe's billed itself in the ad, it was "the store with a conscience."
The less fortunate are on the minds of many at holiday time, and long ago was no exception. In Marshall in 1900, the Women's Christian Temperance Union was "glad to receive all donations for the needy" at a local grocery at any time before Thanksgiving eve, with "the goods...to be distributed Thanksgiving Day."
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.