Thanksgiving in the White House

Thanksgiving as a national holiday dates back to George Washington’s proclamation in 1789, which named the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.  The tradition wavered in the 19th century until Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863 declaring the last Thursday in November be regularly commemorated as Thanksgiving.  It has been an American tradition since then.

Part of this tradition has been the donation of turkeys for the holiday dinner.  Horace Vose [of the Rhode Island Poultry Association] saw an opportunity and seized it, providing the White House Thanksgiving turkey for forty years from 1873 to 1913.  When Vose died, many stepped in to have the honor of having their bird plucked, stuffed, and reduced to bones by the First Family.

31-AL-56 Lawrence Richey with the turkeys he shot for the Hoover Thanksgiving dinner. 1930

31-AL-56 Larry Richey with the turkeys he shot for the Hoover Thanksgiving dinner. 1930

By the Hoover administration, the White House routinely received five or six turkeys for Thanksgiving.  True to form, 1929 saw six turkeys donated.  Two were from Minnesota—the Arrowhead Region Turkey Growers Association and the Duluth 4-H sent birds to Mr. and Mrs. Hoover.  For the first time, these turkeys were flown [in a plane] to D.C., giving lie to the belief that turkeys cannot fly.  Stockton, California donated a 35-pound behemoth.  Hoover’s secretary Larry Richey brought in two wild turkeys bagged in Virginia. Not to be outdone, Maplewood Farms of Wellman, Iowa donated a 25-pounder.

Before sitting down to what must have been a groaning table, the Hoovers went to a Thanksgiving service at the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church in D.C., joined by their son Allan, home from graduate school at Harvard.  To work up an appetite, the Hoover family spent the day motoring around the District and northern Virginia.  According to newspaper reports, Richey’s wild turkey graced the Hoover table that evening as the Hoovers dined with Allan, and five friends of the family.  The other turkeys fed White House staff.

Astute readers will note that none of the donated Thanksgiving turkeys were pardoned.  While some contend the tradition of pardoning turkeys dates back to the Lincoln administration, when a holiday bird was spared at the behest of young ‘Tad’ Lincoln, this does not become an annual tradition until the Truman administration.

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