Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
The traditions of Thanksgiving have changed little since the first one, which is generally attributed to the pilgrims of Massachusetts for their good harvest celebration in 1621. However, the claim to being the first Thanksgiving is subject to much on-going debate as some historians believe the settlers in the Virginia colonies held thanksgiving feasts at an earlier date. Florida researchers propose that the earliest known thanksgiving event may have been held by the Spanish in 1565 near Saint Augustine, Florida.
Throughout the 1600s, harvest and religious gatherings were held on various dates and were called for by both state and church leaders. Finally, in 1789 President George Washington asked for the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in late November.
To promote unity among the states, President Lincoln officially proclaimed that all states would celebrate the event on the final Thursday in November in 1863.
Then in December of 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. Until that time, state governors and the President would sometimes choose different November dates for the celebration, forcing residents to decide whether they would celebrate the federal or state holiday or both often scheduled one week apart.
From the early days of Webster City, churches took turns hosting Union Thanksgiving Services with all the ministers participating. The local papers reported in depth on the services and sermons. On occasion there was disagreement on who would host the event. An editorial in the November 21, 1888 Hamilton Freeman stated that the previously announced union service was for that denomination only but there would be "a free, liberal, non-sectarian Thanksgiving service at the Universalist churchand people of all persuasions and of no persuasion are cordially invited to attend".
The November 25, 1921 issue of the Freeman Journal reported that the Union Church service was hosted by the English Lutheran Church with the Rev. A. L. Eddy of the Congregational church delivering the sermon. Rev. Eddy prefaced his sermon with a historical review of the holiday and noted that "The American Thanksgiving is composed of three elements Church, the turkey and football".
Up until the mass production of the Beltsville turkey, various turkey breeds were raised locally by individual farmers and sold the week of Thanksgiving to the local butchers. Some years there were only a small number of birds available due to wet spring weather conditions, so the holiday table might have been adorned with geese, ducklings, chicken or ham. Turkey prices ranged from 22 cents a pound in 1915 to 57 cent per pound in 1920. In 1955, Mark's Super Valu advertised hen turkeys for 53 cents a pound, Duns Grocery offered Bronze double breasted hens at 49 cents a pound and the Webster City Fruit and Grocery promoted Ellsworth turkeys for just 39 cents a pound.
Soon after the railroad arrived in town in the spring of 1869, New Yorker City suppliers began shipping the large, plump "East River oysters" to various merchants who sold them over the years for 50 to 90 cents a quart. It didn't take many of the big oysters to make the scalloped oyster dish so favored on Thanksgiving. By the late 1920s, New York closed the city's waters to shell fishing as the harvest declined due to overharvesting, pollution and disease. Webster City merchants then switched to the smaller "Baltimore" oyster.
Churches and civic organizations in Webster City and throughout the county also provided a full meal so that families could enjoy the day out of the kitchen. An ad in the November 23, 1894 Tribune by the Rebekah ladies invited all to come and get a good menu of roast turkey with cranberry sauce, baked chicken and ham, scalloped oysters, jellies, pickles, celery, salads, mashed and sweet potatoes, baked beans, white and brown bread, pumpkin, cranberry, mince and apple pie, doughnuts, coffee, tea and fruit for just 25 cents.
Many local restaurants also served a Thanksgiving meal with the Willson Hotel getting the rave reviews throughout the years.
A Webster City Tribune reporter checked out the cost of the traditional dinner for a family of six and reported in a November 17, 1916 article that an eight pound turkey at 27 cents a pound was $2.16 and with the prevailing costs of the remainder of the dinner, the woman of the house could put the meal on the table for a total of $4.88.
For more than 130 years, the turkey and football have shared Thanksgiving Day. The first college Thanksgiving football game was played in 1876 with the NFL hosting its first Thanksgiving game in 1920. The first-ever national radio broadcast of an NFL Thanksgiving day game took place in 1934, which was a game between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. In November of 1956, the Thanksgiving Day game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions was the first televised turkey day football game.
Webster City wasn't immune to the turkey and football connection. Football began in Webster City High School in 1896. It appears from newspaper reports that the "Purple eleven" played their first Thanksgiving Day game at Humboldt in 1899. The tradition continued with home and away games until 1933.
The holiday hasn't always been just about food and football. There were also weddings, clay pigeon shoots, dances, church bazaars and theatrical entertainment at the Opera House, along with early morning family pheasant hunts and an occasional blizzard to complicate travel.
In the days of horses and picking corn by hand and even through the days of small tractors and two-row corn pickers, the goal for farm families in the county was always to have all the corn harvested by Thanksgiving Day.
And while we complain that the Christmas advertising begins much too early, it is no different today than it was 150 years ago. Holiday advertising began in early November and continued through Christmas. Starting in the early 1900s, the local papers even had special advertising sections promoting holiday gifts which appeared the day before and day after Thanksgiving. but no one called it Black Friday then.
As families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year, they will be preparing the same dishes as their ancestors. There will be a community Union service, televised football games and the Macy's parade. We can be thankful that the more things change the more they stay the same.