Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, in what would later become part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 after a previous winter of starvation and privation. Reportedly, all of the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans shared a feast that happened to include four wild turkeys, not to mention duck, pheasant, and venison. Almost one hundred and seventy years later, George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789. It was not until the middle of the civil war that Abraham Lincoln—upon the urging of feminist, editor, and writer, Sarah J. Hale—created the national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November beginning in 1863. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt pushed to make the third Thursday in November the official holiday, but it was in 1941 that Congress passed a joint resolution to make the fourth Thursday in November the law.
Not to be outdone by the Americans, Canadians can trace their first Thanksgiving to Martin Frobisher holding a formal Thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland in 1578 to celebrate surviving his voyage searching for the Northwest Passage. However, it wasn’t until almost four hundred years later in 1957 that Canadian Thanksgiving was officially declared to be the second Monday in October—coincidently, the same year that Fernand Lachance came up with the idea of poutine: "Ca va te faire une maudite poutine."
Many decades before there were parades and football games and, in fact, before there was a Macy’s or a football, there were families traveling home for the holidays. Historically, families lived closer geographically, so perhaps it was an easier trek in distance, if not in convenience of transportation.
On the first official Thanksgiving Day, over ninety percent of the United States population were either farmers or involved with agricultural production and during the Lincoln administration, fifty-eight percent were. At the end of World War I, twenty-seven percent of Americans were still farming, and the end of World War II, that number had decreased to fifteen percent. Today, farmers represent less than 1.3% of the American population; however, there are more acres under till than ever before producing more agricultural products per acre. What began in this country as a family-based agrarian culture is now predominately a large, industrial complex, even with those farms owned by families, which currently represent almost 96% of all farms.
Going to grandmother’s house by sleigh in Louisa May Alcott's time, and coincidently during a civil war, was not just a romantic plot idea for the March family of Little Women fame. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was commonplace. The March’s were not a farming family, but they were one generation removed and lived in a town that was more rural than urban. Other realities in New England at this time also meant close philosophical ties to a community of Transcendentalists, people like Emerson and Thoreau. Mr. March, like the real-life Bronson Alcott on whom he is based, was one of these enlightened, forward-thinking people. It was later in the nineteenth century that these transcendentalist ideals strongly influenced designers in the Midwest, such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, the latter also being one generation away from working the farm. In Little Women, the March sisters travel the globe—Jo goes to New York, while her sister Amy embarks on a lengthy European tour—but they consistently return to the family home where their pride in the democratic ideals of independence and advancement through hard work is obvious, as were their opinions.
Over the years, this agrarian heritage also gave families a sense of practical know-how. In learning how to construct and make things, repair and maintain them, they developed an ability to recognize quality, craftsmanship and lasting value, and established a criterion for evaluating aesthetic achievement. The further we get away from knowing how things work, and indeed, working with our hands, it seems the further we remove ourselves from appreciating craftsmanship and thoughtful endeavors in our built environment. As Benjamin Franklin professed, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
This Thanksgiving we are faced with extraordinary challenges that include a raging pandemic that has devastated families economically and with the loss of life and normalcy, fostered mental anguish and instability, and has left a country divided like no other time since the Civil War over differing political points of view. Raised and educated in Wisconsin, I am distraught to see how these things have torn the state apart and sickened to realize how ignorance and despair have gutted a culture of mixed agrarian and urban ideals that was Wisconsin’s history, and with tragic results. The tragedy lies not just with a life-threatening illness, but with a way of living destroyed, where there has been a “depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have the deep urban-rural divide,” states Curt Meine an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin in a recent New Yorker article. It effectively signals the end of the Wisconsin Idea, which was to ensure well-constructed legislation aimed at benefiting the greatest number of people where the beneficent influence of the University system can reach every family in the state. A laboratory for democracy, "the Wisconsin tradition" meant more than a simple belief in the people. It also meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find," asserts retired Prof. Jack Stark. Service to others, giving a helping hand and opportunities to educate should not be condemned as a political strategy, nor an opportunistic ruse. There is a difference between information and knowledge, opinion and fact, doctrine and education. Wisconsin needs to find its light again, so to the rest of the country. As in the Wisconsin state motto, let’s move forward, together.
If for some unfathomable reason a family Thanksgiving dinner is planned in your orbit (rather than the sensible and life-saving choice of a zoom call), please remember to keep opinions restricted to the food being served, the surrounding décor, clothing and hairstyles, comments on children, grandchildren, and cousins - all of which should be extraordinarily positive, whether factual or not. And as Amy Dickinson recommends, know where your mask, keys, phone, and coat are, just in case.
This year, as all others, I am thankful for a good bourbon and a good book.