Originally published in 1984
A day set aside for giving thanks has been a part of New England tradition since 1621, when the Plymouth Colony survivors celebrated their first harvest.
From that time on, the Governors of the Colonies (and later the States) set an annual Thanksgiving Day by proclamation. On the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving, the Governor’s Proclamation would be read in the meeting house. The date was not consistent or universal, but it was usually a Thursday in late November or early December.
George Washington proclaimed the first National Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789, to commemorate the adoption of the United States Constitution. An 1819 Thanksgiving Proclamation by Connecticut Governor Oliver Wolcott was found in a Simsbury attic exactly 100 years later, in 1919. It was inscribed “to the clerk of the Episcopal Society in Granby” and was probably read to members of that Society in their church.
The first Episcopal Church in Granby was St. Anne’s, c.1762, which is thought to have been located on the site of the present Granby Visiting Nurse Association building. In 1792, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church was built on the same site. It was a large building with a steeple. The interior was ornate, with beautiful box pews, galleries and a pipe organ built by a local craftsman, Peter Jewett. The church was later used for town meetings and was torn down in 1870.
Governor Wolcott proclaimed Thursday, December 2, 1819 “as a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer.” There was great religious emphasis in the document, which ended with: “At the same time, to supplicate the divine guidance and protection to the President of United States, and to all others entrusted with rule, counsel and authority; to entreat that being directed by prudence, wisdom and integrity, they may cause right and justice to prevail; that all institutions for promoting piety, science, morality, benevolence and charity may flourish; that liberty, happiness, peace and security may be continued to our country, to the latest generations, and be speedily extended to all mankind.”
As a final admonition, Wolcott added, “All servile labour and vain recreation, on said day, are by law forbidden.”
In l838, Reverend Thomas Robbins of Windsor, Connecticut, wrote in his diary that there were “more Thanksgivings I think this year than in any preceding one. I believe in 10 states.” However, he also noted that “attendance at meeting was thin.” People preferred, evidently, to give thanks at home with family and friends, and to escape the lengthy meeting house sermons.
As New Englanders moved West, the Thanksgiving custom migrated with them. In 1846, Sara Josepha Hale, editor of “Godey’s Lady’s Book” started her one-woman campaign to have Thanksgiving Day become a national holiday. Hale’s dream became a reality in the darkest days of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863 as a National Day of Thanksgiving. His concerns were evident in his closing words, “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with human penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
Lincoln’s day was not changed until 1941 when an Act of Congress set the 4th Thursday of November as the official American Day of Thanksgiving.
Although it seems almost un-American to eat anything except turkey for Thanksgiving, that was not the menu in Granby at the turn of the century. Interviews with older residents indicate that chicken pie was usually the main course, along with the other familiar trimmings of mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, turnips, cranberries and pies.”
The late Edna Spring Messenger recalled, “Thanksgiving, we had a big dinner with all the relatives. We always had chicken pie and roast pork, baked Indian pudding, cranberry sauce and pumpkin and mince pies. Once Aunt Cornelia made a huge chicken pie in her old brick oven; it was delicious! Chicken pies used to be made with the bones left in; it made the crust flakier because the bones held the crust up.”
The late Mary Humphrey Sweeton had similar memories of her childhood in Barkhamsted. “Thanksgiving was a family time. Grandfather would come from Massachusetts. I don’t suppose we ever had turkey; we usually had chicken pie and all the trimmings – pumpkin and mince pie.”
The late Helen Cotton Howland spoke poetically of the fall harvest. “The cellar, with a dirt floor, held the treasure of summer’s yield. There were barrels and barrels of several kinds of apples, long bins of potatoes that always lasted until the following July, squash of all kinds (how good that winter squash tasted on Thanksgiving Day), and Mother’s squash pies, jars and jars of pickles, dozens, dozens upon dozens of canned fruit—oh, so many kinds—and vegetables too!”
There were nine children in the Petersen family on Petersen Road. They usually had chicken and roast pork “but had turkey after Dad started raising them.’’
If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, we’d be honoring the turkey as our national bird instead of eating it. He considered the Bald Eagle a “bird of bad moral character.” However, Ben was a bit ambivalent on this subject, because he also thoroughly enjoyed a good turkey dinner.
Hope you do too. Happy Thanksgiving!
With thanks to Faith Tyldsley who researched the Salmon Brook Historical Society archives to select this article and photo.
Laura Holcomb’s Chicken Pie
2 quarts flour
7 teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 2/3 cups shortening (use ½ chicken fat)
3 cups milk
3 stewing chickens, cut up and cooked
Oven temperature 325 degrees
Cook and bone chicken. Place chicken in bottom of pan. Do not use giblets. Make gravy. Pour enough gravy over chicken to cover it. Top with biscuit dough and make oblong hole in center of dough to let steam escape. Bake 2 hours or more. Watch your cooking time carefully. Use extra gravy for serving.
This recipe was used for many years at church suppers at the “old church” Parish House at 20 Simsbury Road. The biscuits on top stood 4-5 inches high!
Recipe courtesy of West Granby United Methodist Church.