Since Thanksgiving is this week, we might as well share some stories about Thanksgiving in Sandusky. We were all taught about the “first Thanksgiving,” when the Plymouth colonists celebrated the successful harvest of 1621 with a three-day feast with their Native American neighbors. But not everybody knows that Thanksgiving only became an official holiday in the United States after President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of the holiday during the Civil War, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26, 1863, and in every November after. (To learn more about the history of Thanksgiving, be sure to read another Register blog, The Civil War in Ohio – 150 Years Later.) However, many Americans, Sanduskians included, observed the tradition of Thanksgiving even before the holiday was instituted. And after, of course.
In the Sandusky Library’s historical collections we have letters documenting the observance of Thanksgiving both before and after President Lincoln’s proclamation. In a letter dated Monday, November 23, 1846, Judge Samuel Caldwell invites Samuel Butler and his wife to a Thanksgiving dinner: “ ‘Thanksgiving’ is at hand and the Pumpkin is now cooking for the pie to celebrate that occasion – What – say you – will you come down on Thursday of this [?] + partake with me [?]” Obviously, the Thanksgiving tradition of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner was already established in the Caldwell household.
The Thanksgiving holiday took on a greater significance during the Civil War, as Lincoln recognized. The citizens of Sandusky also were well aware of the importance of this holiday to war morale, and made a concerted effort to share the bounty of Thanksgiving with Union soldiers stationed at the Johnson’s Island prison, and their families. In a letter to John Wilbor of Huron, dated November 11, 1864, Eliza Follett (wife of Oran Follett) asks for contributions “to provide a Thanksgiving dinner for our soldiers’ families.” She noted that “Anything will be acceptable- Beans and saltpork to cook with them. Sorghum syrup for the children to eat on their bread. apple butter, meat, vegetables apples & etc.” Mrs. Follett had already received assurance from the local express office that they would deliver the collected goods free of charge.
The spirit of giving was also evident on Thanksgiving Day in 1900, when George Boeckling, of Cedar Point fame, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for one hundred needy children at the Opera House Café on Water Street in Sandusky. At 11:00 AM that day, waiters and waitresses served the children a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. At the time, Mr. Boeckling revealed further plans for an even larger celebration for Christmas Eve, when Santa Claus was expected to greet as many as a thousand children in the lobby of the Nielson Opera House.
Thanksgiving in Sandusky was not all about feasting; there was entertainment, too. On Thanksgiving night in 1887, “Ye Olde Folkes” Concert was performed at the Opera House. A Mrs. S.W. Butler (perhaps the same Mrs. Butler of the 1846 dinner?) was one of the concert organizers. Costumed singers performed a variety of songs and hymns, both in groups and solos. The show ended with renditions of “America” and “Auld Lang Syne,” with audience members invited to join the singing.
However you celebrate it, be sure to have a Happy Thanksgiving and remember those in the path of history who brought you to your present place in life.