Some years, the birds didn't show

Juneau seniors celebrate Thanksgiving, reminisce about holidays past

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2003

Sitting around and watching football on television after the Thanksgiving feast wasn't an option in Southeast Alaska 60 years ago, but the holiday then and the holiday now have plenty in common.

"We played checkers," said Elizabeth Walters, a Juneau resident who grew up in Angoon. "I remember my dad used to cut those twigs to make little checkers pieces. We didn't buy things like that."

Walters shared a Thanksgiving meal with 41 other seniors at the Valley Senior Center on Friday. Long-time residents of Southeast Alaska used the occasion to tell about Thanksgivings past.

Fifty years ago, turkey and canned pumpkin for pies were usually available in Juneau around Thanksgiving. Some years, though, the birds just didn't make it.

Maxine McCoy, who moved to Juneau with her husband in 1946, remembers a period when striking workers in Seattle prevented barges from shipping meat to Juneau. That year, wild game provided the protein for the meal.

Using eggs in any meal took some getting used to, McCoy said.

"They were what I considered old," she said.

"You couldn't eat them," said Mary Jo Hobbs, who sat with McCoy for the meal Friday. But either they ate the barged-up "fresh" chicken eggs from down south or they ate other kinds of eggs.

"You can get used to seagull eggs too, if you have to," said Hobbs.

Thanksgiving feasts in Southeast villages were more community-oriented than those that took place in Juneau, folks said.

"In winter, if you count dogs and cats, there were about 200 people in Pelican," said Hobbs, who lived in the coastal fishing village from 1949 to 1957 before homesteading in the Mendenhall Valley from 1957 to 1975.

Thanksgiving in Pelican consisted of a potluck meal at the community hall, where people showed up with game, fish, and pies and jams made from wild berries, Hobbs said. Turkeys and the rest of the fixings were shared too, if supply ships made it to the village.

Catholic Community Service provided Thanksgiving meals at the downtown and Douglas senior centers on Thursday. The meals are a chance for seniors to celebrate Thanksgiving with their friends before they celebrate with their families this week.

"Next Thursday, what happens then?" joked George Walters, who was at the meal with his wife Elizabeth. "This is Thanksgiving."

To the tune of live piano and accordion music, volunteers served the seniors the traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, a salad, rolls and pumpkin pie. For some, the meal was just another meal. But for others, the chance to celebrate with friends gave them one more thing to be grateful for.

"Today is a wonderful time, it's a great time," said McCoy.

She attended one of the Thursday meals and came for more on Friday. Because she doesn't have family in town, the meals made up most of her Thanksgiving celebration.

The Gastineau Channel senior centers are operated with state and federal money by Catholic Social Service, said Marianne Mills, the nutrition and transportation coordinator for Catholic Community Service.

"We like to have Thanksgiving for the seniors, but the real Thanksgiving we're closed for the holiday," Mills said.

The senior centers are not homes for seniors but rather a place for seniors to meet, play bridge, sew, exercise and stay active, Mills said. Meals are served twice a week at the Valley Senior Center, and are prepared in the kitchen of the Juneau Senior Center downtown and transported to the valley center's location at St. Paul's Catholic Church.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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