PAT NEAL: Thanksgiving: Knowing when you got it good

THERE’S A LOT of talk these days about holiday stress.

It makes one think back in history when our traditional holidays were more of a celebration than an ordeal.

In pioneer times on the Olympic Peninsula, celebrating holidays was a sign that you had survived another year.

The real stress was trying to survive life on the farm where you grew your own food and if the crops should happen to fail you had nothing to eat.

Hearing modern tales of the rigors of holiday stress reminds me of a story I heard sometime in the past century about celebrating Thanksgiving back in the old days when the Olympic Peninsula was known as the last frontier.

It was told by the daughter of a pioneer family who was “farmed out.”

That meant she was sent to another farm to work for her keep because there was nothing to eat at home.

Her story is similar to a generation of people who tried to survive on remote wilderness homesteads.

There were few markets for farm produce.

Nobody was going to buy your cabbage and potatoes when everyone else grew cabbage and potatoes.

Cash was hard to find.

After the Panic of 1893 money was so scarce that Lauridsen’s grocery store in Port Angeles printed its own bills and manufactured its own coins that could be used for store purchases.

It was a system that lasted until the Treasury Department got wind of it.

Sawmills were notorious for paying their workers in company script that could only be redeemed at the company store which engendered a system of constant debt.

With no cash, people had to trade what they had for what they needed.

There were few ways to get cash or pay off the bill at the grocers.

You could cut shingle bolts or trap fur-bearing animals such as beaver, mink and even skunks.

These could be traded for basic commodities such as flour, sugar, salt and kerosene to keep the lamps lit.

Today it’s hard to imagine celebrating the holidays with such a limited list of ingredients but people were happier with less than the excess we have today.

They looked forward to a typical Great Depression Sunday dinner that might consist of “milk toast.”

This is a piece of toasted bread covered with a creamy sauce of sugar and milk thickened with flour.

That was some good eating.

“Sometimes we had pigeons,” my old friend said.

“Papa would shoot a gunny sack full of pigeons and I would have to pick them.

“They were tough but not as bad as the ducks which tasted like liver or geese that tasted like seaweed.

“Sometimes we raised hogs so we had lard if there was enough feed to fatten them.

“Once we had a milk cow so we had milk and butter until she dried up.

“Usually we had chickens so we had eggs when they were laying but sometimes the hens got eaten by the hawks, eagles and racoons.

“We had to guard the chickens with a shotgun day and night.

“That was my job.

“Sometimes we had coffee which mother used to blend with chicory to make it last longer.

“Coffee with sugar and cream was a real luxury.

“One year, Papa had gotten a job at a logging camp and came home with a turkey for Thanksgiving.

“I’ll never forget that we thought we were rich.”

And I’ll never forget her and her philosophy of Thanksgiving.

It’s about knowing when you got it good, and even if it ain’t all that good, it could be worse.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]

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