The great Thanksgiving tradition

bbashioum@demo-mo.comNovember 29, 2013 

Belton residents Nadine Cavanaugh, 91, right, and her niece, Theresa Cotter, 71, left, have been hosting a family Thanksgiving feast for 75 consectutive years.

BETHANY BASHIOUM/DEMOCRAT MISSOURIAN

While most families may have at least some kind of holiday traditions with friends or family, 91-year-old Belton resident Nadine Cavanaugh is celebrating Thanksgiving in the same fashion that she has for three-quarters of a century.

In 1938, Cavanaugh’s family began a Thanksgiving tradition of a feast that has lasted 75 years and five generations.

November 1938 was one of the coldest Novembers recorded with a high of 28 degrees the day Cavanaugh’s sister, Vera Jungmann Waltmire cooked her first Thanksgiving dinner for her family.

“I think my mother-in-law was surprised I could bake and cook,” Waltmire told the Democrat Missourian in an article published in 2005 about the family’s tradition.

Waltmire was 21, and it was her first Thanksgiving since she married her husband, J.J. The couple decided that their large farm house on 195th Street east of J Highway would be the location of the gathering.

As the family began to grow, the tradition took shape.

Waltmire’s daughter, Theresa Cotter, 71, Belton, still remembers the memories made at the farm on Thanksgiving Day. Pony rides for the children and the men going pigeon hunting were some of the fondest moments she recalls.

The largest gathering the family had boasted 53 family members, and almost half of the house guests stayed overnight. Today, the gathering averages about 20 people.

“It was an ordeal every November. Everybody looked forward to it,” Cavanaugh said.

For 45 years, the annual Thanksgiving festivities were held at the farm house until the Waltmires sold the farm to move to Belton in 1974.

But the sale of the farm did not diminish the family’s tradition.

The location of the family’s meal has changed a few times, but in recent years, it has been at a relative’s home in Raymore.

The family usually sits down for the meal at about 1 p.m.

“My dad would always give the prayer,” Cotter said. “I do it now.”

Traditional Thanksgiving fixings are served at the feast, but some of the old-time favorites include oyster dressing, spiced pickled peaches, pickled beets, plum pudding and mincemeat pie.

“There’s nothing like the old recipes,” Cotter says. “Mother canned all year long from her half-acre garden in preparation for Thanksgiving.”

Another memory Cavanaugh still recalls is a time where a little problem arose in the kitchen while the ladies were fixing the meal. Waltmire opened the oven to check the turkey.

The grate tipped and the turkey went flying out of the oven.

After sliding along the linoleum, the turkey came to a halt.

“I never will forget that,” Cavanaugh said. “My sister said, ‘What are we going to do now?’ I said, ‘Get me two forks.’”

With dozens of hungry stomachs awaiting the holiday meal, the women did what they had to do.

“I got two forks and picked that sucker up and put him back on the tray,” Cavanaugh said.

The women picked up the turkey and stuck it back into the oven, swearing not to tell.

“They didn’t tell anyone,” Cotter remembers, even at the point when her father mentioned, ‘This is the best turkey we’ve ever had.’”

“Vera had to leave the room laughing,” Cavanaugh said. “But I don’t know if we told them until the next Thanksgiving.”

After the meal, the mothers would wash the dishes, Cotter recalls.

“There were no paper plates, then,” she said, but did note that the men now help.

While the family looked forward to the tradition each year, the festivities were not always the happiest of times.

Several family members missed the annual feast because they were fighting in war, including Waltmire’s brothers who served in World War I and the Korean War.

“My mother asked them if they should skip the celebration,” Cotter said. “They said, ‘No, go ahead and have it because we’ll think about it.’”

Cavanaugh is one of four family members remaining from the individuals who were present at the family’s first Thanksgiving after her mother passed away in 2011.

Cotter hopes to see the tradition go on for many more years -- at least through her lifetime.

“I think the important thing is the family connection and giving thanks for everything we have,” she said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Cavanaugh agrees.

“I think the most favorite part of the day is getting together with all the family, visiting, and seeing the new offspring,” she said. “Hopefully the children who grew up with this celebration hang on to it for the years to come. This is a part of our heritage.”

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