GrandPapa's Letter
Franklin B. Van Valkenburgh


Still another holiday, sacred in the hearts and memory was THANKSGIVING DAY. For weeks before this day, appointed by the Governor, and proclaimed from every pulpit in the land, came around, preparations were made for its due and proper observance.

The first thing was to select a couple of choice turkeys, and a number of chickens, and a sucking pig for sacrifice, and they were all pampered and fattened with the skill and care that many years of careful attention to that duty had created; and the choicest fruits and finest pumpkins of the year were carefully selected and laid aside to grace the festive tables; Of course there were in store somewhere great jars of Mince Meat, and a stock of prime roasts, and the last best gift of God to man; a box of select oranges from New Orleans, and a keg of choice oysters from Baltimore procured and held until such time as the Governor should tell us when, and for what we were to be thankful??

On the Sunday after he received the Proclamation, the Minister read it from the pulpit, adding his endorsement, and then the fun began. The great kettle was filled with the best of the cider, which was boiled to the proper consistency for the manufacture of the Mince Pies, and the pumpkins were deftly skinned and cut into thin scrips, and boiled, and the oven wood was carefully selected and prepared and the great brick oven, carefully cleaned, was entrusted with the pies, all so smoothly encrusted, and skillfully decorated. If you think all this not worth the mention, it is because you never saw, as you never can see and know the pleasure attending these preliminary steps, It was an all absorbing occupation for days, and then the watching of the oven, with occasional peeps into its interior to see that all was going on well there, was great FUN for the "Young Ones, "

We were called early on the morning of the "Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, " and each one of us who was old enough to carry a basket was sent to some poor home in the village with a portion of the Good Cheer intended for the day, and we often returned from those early excursions with new ideas of life, and of the condition of those near us, as well as with better appetites for and fuller appreciation of the good things we were to consume.

For breakfast we always had chicken pies, rich, brown and luscious and sweet potatoes, in addition to the usual bill of fare, and were bidden to eat heartily, as we would get nothing more until THREE O'CLOCK, which was an almost un-heard of time for dinner, as our Dinner Bell rang promptly at 12:30 o'clock for every secular day in the year, but this was THANKSGIVING DAY, and there were Church services to be attended, beside the preparation of the dinner, and the setting of the table for all the family; This performance we youngsters used to delight in, and to render very hard for those who had the Work to do, for the tables, set for anywhere from twenty five to forty people were the subject of great consideration and care, and each one wished to have a hand in it.

The tables were always covered with snowy napery, on which I never saw a napkin?? and set with the finest ware the house afforded, among which I remember a set of china, the forms and coloring of which would set a Connoisseur in Ceramics, crazy today, and they were literally loaded with the good things of the Earth; On this day, contrary to the usual and established custom of the house, we had a Course Dinner, for the very satisfactory and simple reason that no tables would hold all we proposed to eat.

Each table was ornamented with two or more pyramids of fruit, Apples, Pears, Oranges and Grapes, piled up, in the midst of green leaves and asparagus boughs; and in the center of THE table, at which Father and Mother and the Minister sat, on the great China Platter, the pride of the household, was the ROAST PIG, a favorite dish of Father's, resting quietly on his haunches, brown and sweet as a bit of the choicest pastry, with a lemon between his teeth, and his tail politely curled, looking "The Judge, " in the face with the air of one saying "Whose little Pig am I."

At one end of this table, and on each of the others was a famous Turkey, and all were surrounded with covered dishes from which arose clouds of odoriferous steam, suggestive of sweet potatoes, or cabbages, or Cauliflower or Squash, or some other dish dear to the heart of the giver of thanks; and as everybody knew, the pantry contained a great store of PIES'N Things to follow, as the Oysters were to precede these things seen and perishable.

The GIVING of THANKS was no mere ceremony; We all joined heartily I believe in that service, as we did in demolishing the feast; The drink was confined to "Good well water, which there was enough and to spare. Before the feast we had all heard a sermon, and some account of the early Thanksgivings of our ancestors, and so were in prime condition for the ceremony of FEASTING. After dinner the conditions were somewhat changed?? but such of us as were capable of making the necessary exertion went out sleighing, or sliding down hill, or skating, as the spirit moved, and the day closed at a late hour for us, with singing and prayers.

This was the one day in the year when family reunions were held every where in the vicinity, and beside his own family, Father, who was always one of the Trustees in the Academy, made it a point to have with us at dinner such of the scholars as were too far from their own homes to rejoin their own families, so our house was always full and overflowing.

Generally the day before Thanksgiving Day witnessed a Shooting Match in the field just south of the Cannon House, which called out all the local marksmen: The matches were for Turkeys, and while they sometimes shot at targets, the favorite method was to set up the ill fated turkeys themselves, fastening them in a box in such a way that only their head was exposed to view, and whoever succeeded in cutting that off with his rifle ball took the turkey; There were great gatherings on such occasions, and stories of wild and deep carousals at one or other of the Taverns sometimes followed the shooting.

It would be worse than a crime to forget the First of April, when enumerating the Holidays, for although not mentioned in the Calendar, that was a day fully kept and honored by us. All the time honored jokes which are now in vogue were practiced then, and staid business men, with large and presumably appropriate mottoes attached to their collars, or imitation tails hanging down behind their pompous persons were greeted and passed along, without a word or suggestion of comment, only to be unmercifully "wagged" when they discovered the joke.

I remember very well one April Fool's Day, when my Father caused his leg to be carefully bandaged, and soaked with some loud smelling cure-all, and sent in hot haste for "The Doctor" an amiable young gentleman, who was very susceptible to female charms, and had proposed to each of the girls in our house and, if reports were to be believed, to most of those in the village.

In the language of a song we often sung in those days, "The Doctor came with right good will, never forgetting his calomil" and was greatly distressed to find, (from the report of the family) that the Judge had had a bad fall, and probably broken his leg?? After removing the bandages, the Judge groaning and moaning in the most approved manner all the time, the Doctor assayed to remove the Boot, but it seemed to have grown to the leg, finally at the suggestion of the PATIENT, he straddled the leg, as was often done when boots were water soaked, and prepared to give a good strong pull, when the Judge's other foot, placed along side the lame one, suddenly assumed the combative, and was violently thrust forward, and the Doctor stumbled over himself, and fell on his nose??

Of course all the on lookers shouted with laughter, and the Doctor, surprised and probably disgusted at the levity of his old friend and patient left the house "a wiser and a madder man, " I have heard it said that when Father paid his bill, "The laugh was on the other side????"

Of course the Glorious Fourth of July was observed by the Pious and Patriotic citizens of Prattsburgh with all due formalities and all the NOISE they could possibly make: No place in America which I have seen is better adapted to the making of a racket than that same old burgh, for it is to all intents and purposes down in a well, being surrounded by high hills, which catch and send back and forth with ten fold volume every sound that reaches their stony sides; and so it was that when the bells rung and the cannon boomed as they always did at break of day on the Fourth, the original sounds were caught up and multiplied many times as they passed round and round the valley, and the deaf heard, and those who were not deaf shuddered.

The CANNON, a village trophy, carefully kept in the cannon house for use on great occasions, and a couple or more of Black-Smith's Anvils were always on hand in the morning, and made the welkin ring with a vengance at daylight, and "from the rising of the Sun to the going down thereof, " there was no quiet or repose in the otherwise peaceful valley. Usually there was a Stand erected in the Square, or some nearby Grove from which the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE was read by somebody, and a few patriotic songs were sung by some other body, the people all joining in with the chorus if so advised, and prayer was offered by our Reverend Minister, and one or two speeches were delivered by some celebrity, and in the afternoon there was a parade by the Calthumpians, or some other wild race of rag a muffins, followed by a dance and fire works in the evening.

On one Fourth the remnants of a man who had stood in front of the cannon in some preceding Fourth, and lost both hands and both feet, appeared on the stand, with battered features and hoary head, and a collection was taken up for his benefit.

The Fire Works would hardly seem deserving of the name to those who saw the display at the Columbian Fair in Chicago, but they were gay and exciting enough at the time to bring out everybody and his wife to see them; They consisted of Bon Fires, which consumed all the old barrels and boxes in the village; Hot-air ballons, home made and erratic, and FIRE BALLS: The latter were also home made, and were large balls of candle wicking, (which was a loose sort of cotton cord,) soaked in turpentine, and were thrown back and forth in great numbers, they must not be allowed to touch the ground, but must be caught and passed along until burned out, or, if extinguished, must be again soaked in the turpentine, of which a pail full was kept in a secluded place, and again put into service.

To keep a dozen of these flaming balls, which were liable to unwind, and drag long lines of fire in their wake, in the air until they were burned out was no boys play. I remember seeing one of them, in full blaze, pass through an open window into our parlor one night, (it was the last time I ever saw them used) and as it alighted in the midst of a room full of boys and girls in light summer dress, DAVE picked it up, and carrying it to the door, sent it on Its winding way, and then the decree was announced from the porch, which put a stop to the use of FIRE BALLS.

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