Saturday, November 5, 2011

Celebrating Thanksgiving in Pioneer Fort Wayne

Little has been written about the celebration of Thanksgiving in pioneer Fort Wayne. It is well-known that President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day for the final Thursday in November in 1863, and the day was no doubt widely observed from that time afterward. Prior to the Civil War, however, most observations of the day were small and associated with settlers from New England, where, especially in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Thanksgiving had been an annual holiday from the seventeenth century. It appears likely that New Englanders and New Yorkers brought the tradition with them when they came to Fort Wayne in the 1830s. Surprisingly, the more wealthy at least enjoyed a wide variety of food and used recipes brought with them from the East.

Susan (Man) McCulloch, wife of banker Hugh McCulloch, a native of New York, offered one of the earliest references of the holiday in a letter to her mother, Maria Halsey, in Plattsburgh, New York, dated 24 November 1839. She speaks of her anticipation of guests on Thanksgiving Day, which occurred on the 28th that year. She describes the bounty of her home harvest late in the previous summer. "I had their room all ready for [guests] and the chickens were fat and waiting for their necks to be wrung. The watermelons and cantelopes [sic] were then in their prime, and I just wanted Cousin Amasa and Mr. Myers to see how much could be raised on 15 acres of Fort Wayne ground. If they could have seen our watermelon and muskmelon patch, it would have made their mouths water. They never saw such melons in Fulton Market. We had between six & seven hundred bushels of corn, between three & four hundred bushels of potatoes, about a thousand heads of cabbage, hundreds of bushels of beets, turnips, onions, and carrots and some of the largest pumpkins you ever saw. The finest potatoes are selling for eighteen pence a bushel and corn for 25 cents. Flour has been sold for 4 Dollars a barrel this fall... We have had a delightful autumn, scarcely a single hard storm and no sickness of any account, but the weather changed yesterday and this morning the mercury stood at six below zero."

In 1845, she reported in another letter, "Thanksgiving day we had all my husband's relatives, Miss Wallace and Miss Love to dine. We had a first rate dinner. Everything nice. Even my husband was exactly suited in the evening. We all played blindman's bluff." That same year at Christmas, the menu consisted of roast turkey, boiled turkey, chicken pie, plum pudding, mince pie, puffs & jelly, Blanc Mange, Charlotte de Russe, pickles, and coffee. "Though I say it who should not say it, every thing was good. Of course, Mr. McC. was pleased."

There are more clues to the diet of Fort Wayne residents in other letters of Susan. In October 1838, she reported in detail some of her kitchen preparations. "Mr. Merrill, the president of the state bank, [is] staying with us, and I have been all morning making pies & apple dumplings. Will you write me the proportions of meat, apples & seasoning for good mince pies in your next, Dear Mother? I have quite forgotten. I have just learned how to make good tomato pickles. They are equal to the best mangoes. I have made a large stone jar full of peach preserves, another of wild plums, another of tomatoes, another of watermelon, and shall make some apple jelly when I get some red apples. Butter is so scarce that I cannot make cake and must have something nice for company. I have a great many blackberry preserves. I have but one store room, and you may think how it looks, 18 feet long & 4 wide, all my bedding piled up in trunks in one end, dresses & coats hung around on pegs in the other, a barrel of sugar, bag of coffee, box of raisins for candies, jars of sweetmeats, boxes of spices & cocoa, chest of tea, etc. Our cellar is now dry so that we can put butter & lard in it."

On another occasion, January 1839, Susan hosted a reception for the marriage of William Rockhill and Eliza Waugh, and she introduced whipped cream to the city, apparently for the first time. "We threw open the rooms upstairs for the company and laid the supper tables below. On each end of the large table extending through the room I had a pyramid of cakes weighing about 18 pounds, frosted and ornamented with white flowers and white sugar plums, one of fruit cake and the other of federal cake. In other parts of the table I placed five or six large loaves of cake of different kinds, frosted and ornamented with colored sugar plums, cold chicken, ham, roast pork & beef sliced thin, biscuit crullers, cakes, and wine. On the side tables I had calve's foot jelly, Blancmange whips, snowballs, raisins and nuts. For preparing these things I had no assistance but such as little Mary [Fairfield] and my girl could render me, so you know I must have been very busy. Everything was first rate, not one loaf of cake was heavy. Half of the people here did not know there were such things as Whips and Blancmange. The way they ate the fruit cakes would have frightened eastern people. Not a few were sick the next day in consequence of it. So now I am a cook, say what you will about the practice."

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