Hayes County Thanksgivings

Thanksgiving, with its combination of patriotic and religious sentiments, was a most popular

19th-century American holiday. Only July 4th was more widely observed. Even so, on the

sod-house frontier, work often came first. For many settlers, Thanksgiving was just another


The diaries of Con Wilson, who homesteaded in western Hayes County in the 1880s, give a

sense of how many Nebraskans observed Thanksgiving–or didn’t.

Most years, Wilson mentions “Thanks Given” only in passing. Visits with neighbors or

relatives were common, but only after a full day’s work of haying, well-digging, or other farm


In 1889, the Wilson family celebrated the holiday in earnest. On the night before “Thanks

Given”, Wilson went to the nearby post office and country store of Elmer, where a turkey

raffle was held. Lucky Wilson came home with two birds.

On Thanksgiving Day, Wilson and his brood went to church, and then joined their neighbors

for a big community dinner at the schoolhouse. Despite the holiday, chores had to be done.

Wilson notes that two bushels of corn were husked and shelled before the family turned in.

On the Sunday following, a family “Thanks Given” dinner was held at Wilson’s sod house.

His parents and sisters came over from their nearby homestead. The group made short order

of one of the raffle turkeys. Warm weather prompted the family to go calling, and Wilson

records that it was ten at night before they got home.

Other years are perhaps more typical of many homesteaders’ experiences. In 1891, Wilson

spent the day with his neighbor, threshing grain in cold weather and light rain. Conditions

were even worse two years later. The temperature was near zero, and strong winds made

visiting out of the question. “We could do nothing all day,” Wilson wrote.

Perhaps as times got easier, the Wilsons were able to enjoy Thanksgiving in more celebratory

style. We can only guess, since Con Wilson’s diary-keeping ceased in 1895.

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