By Jake Wynn
“For the first time in more than a half-century, Thanksgiving Day will find the Nation at war,” wrote the Harrisburg Evening News on November 28, 1917.
“This fact will be doubly impressed upon thousands of Americans by the appearance at the home board of stalwart sons and brothers, back on brief furloughs, clad in khaki or the navy blue,” the reporter continued. “In the great majority of cases, Dad will make a miserable job of carving the big brown turkey because he will be trying to listen to Jack telling how he got his commission and what he will do to the Kaiser once he gets ‘over there.’”
The United States entered the Great War on the European continent in April 1917 and the nation’s armed forces were poised to launch their young warriors onto the stagnant Western Front. In Pennsylvania’s state capital on the Susquehanna, residents prepared for a war-time holiday season that promised tremendous headaches to go with the holiday cheer. With millions of young men in arms at forts and encampments across the United States, citizens noted prices for Thanksgiving staples soaring through the roof.
At Harrisburg’s Verbeke Market, shoppers’ heads spun as they watched prices for turkeys, chicken, and geese soar to unheard of levels. “Farmers asked as high as 60 cents a pound for dressed turkeys,” recorded an observer for the Harrisburg Telegraph. That’s equivalent to $12.49 per pound today. No meat or produce escaped the price hike – pork, eggs, celery, and other goods were all gouged. The prices only came down when “housewives revolted” at paying such high prices.
Others decided that it would be economical to purchase live turkeys in the days before the holiday. But even this could be perilous. A Harrisburg resident was returning to his home in the Allison Hill neighborhood with a live turkey, bound by its feet, when both he and the turkey slipped and fell to the ground. “The turkey did not get away by any means,” the Telegraph reported. “The owner sat on the pavement and held the highly-prized bird until several men came to his rescue.”
Another Harrisburg resident watched as her Thanksgiving dinner flew away from her house on Balm Street. The escaping gobbler was brought down by the marksmanship of a neighbor firing a shotgun. The neighbor, a Spanish-American War veteran, foiled the escape attempt with one accurate shot.
For those who wanted to gamble their way to a Thanksgiving feast, there was an opportunity for success through an illegal “turkey raffle.” In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, three men were arrested in Cumberland County for running an illicit turkey raffle. More than 50 live turkeys were seized in two raids on the alleged gambling operation.
In the afternoon of Nov. 28, Harrisburg’s newspaper editors huddled in their offices and finished their Thanksgiving editorials.
The Evening News editors thundered forth with a piece on the role of America as spiritually destined to save the world from darkness and inequity. “Little by little, often in blindness, blood and error, man has moved upward against the powers of greed, religious, governmental and all other forms of slavery, until, in this year of 1917, he is face to face with the last mighty exponent of barbarism,” the editors wrote.
“Thank God, that we can look above and beyond the loaded dinner table and behold a vision of millions of poor men, women and children drinking of liberty and happiness because the Almighty called and American answered with all her heart and soul! Mother with the quivering lip! Gaze not through the tears at the empty chair! Father, who watched the little feet from the nursery to the paths of kindergarten, public school, college, to the fields of business strife! Fear not!” they added.
The following day dawned cloudy and cold in the Susquehanna Valley, with a high temperature of 42 degrees in Harrisburg. Dozens of soldiers arrived in Central Pennsylvania to enjoy a holiday dinner with their families while on leave from their units. “The vacant chair was a cause of sorrow in many Harrisburg homes,” wrote the Telegraph, “but many other homes were gladdened by the sight of the soldier, home on furlough. The day was quiet, save for services in various churches of the city.”
There were 23 marriage licenses issued in Dauphin County over the Thanksgiving holiday that year, which according to those in the recorder’s office, was a new holiday record.
Football games were played in the afternoon across Central Pennsylvania. Thousands of citizens dressed warmly and congregated to watch the gridiron duels. On City Island, two Harrisburg rivals duked it out in the mud – Tech beating Central by a thumping 64-0.
At the Hotel Plaza, guests and diners who didn’t want to cook, enjoyed a special Thanksgiving dinner for $1.00 with a menu that featured blue points on shell, snapper soup, boiled sea bass, clam cocktail, leg of lamb, roast native turkey, mashed potatoes, green peas, cranberry sauce, roast haunch of venison, current jelly, fruit salad, and candied yams, followed by English plum pudding, mince pie, pumpkin pie, fruit cake and, Neapolitan ice cream. The dinner was served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
All in all, the day passed quietly and enjoyably throughout the region. Some homes were disappointed at the lack of turkey for dinner, due to the high prices. But some were quite pleased. “Harrisburg emancipated itself from the turkey tradition,” one resident wrote. “There were probably more geese eaten than for a long time… The bird, browned and sauced, appeared on quite a few tables.”
Jake Wynn is a public historian behind “Wynning History” (www.wynninghistory.com), a blog that explores the history and culture of Pennsylvania and the Anthracite Coal Region. He is a native of Williamstown, Pennsylvania and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He is the Director of Interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.