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Harvest of Opportunity

CHERYL TEVIS 11/19/2012 @ 12:08pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Giving thanks for a plentiful harvest is a tradition dating back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

This year's drought-ravaged harvest is likely to fall short of record yields by any historical measure. And the Food Institute predicts that drought will raise the 2013 grocery bill for a family of four by $6.75 per week.

But making abundance the measuring stick of Thanksgiving blessings overlooks the reality that many Thanksgivings throughout history weren't celebrations of abundance at all. It ignores an important holiday ingredient that supersedes the size of the turkey and the TV screen used to watch the football games.

In the spring of 1856, after a sojourn of 12 years in Rock Island County, Illinois, my great-great-grandfather, Elijah Adams, brought his family and a caravan of 23 others by covered wagon to Woodbury County, Iowa. By the following November, he and his family had:

  • 100 acres of sod broken to the plow.
  • 30 tons of their first cutting of prairie hay salvaged from a prairie fire.
  • Plentiful wild game and fish.
  • Supplies procured from Kanesville (Council Bluffs) 90 miles away.
  • Nuts gathered in the woods.
  • Wild plums and berries preserved by the women and girls.
  • A 16×32-foot house with a chimney of mud and sticks.

Did they have an abundance? Hardly. The severe winter of 1856-57 threatened their survival. Of their 100 head of cattle, 50 starved or froze to death by May.

By 1862, President Lincoln had signed the controversial Homestead Act into law, opening up vast expanses of the western U.S. to settlement. These Homesteaders paid for their free land with years of extreme privation. Winds, blizzards, and plagues of insects caused 70% to fail.

During those years, this country was torn asunder by the Civil War. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued the first national proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November a national holiday (the first specific date). It was his attempt to remind citizens of a deeply divided nation of their common heritage.

Six weeks later, can you picture the Homesteaders pausing to give a Thanksgiving blessing at their humble sod homes? Can you imagine them enjoying an abundance of material possessions?

Not all pioneers settled west of the Mississippi. Last summer, my family and I visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side in New York City. The museum is housed in one of the original tenements. A guided tour of small apartments, which were furnished for the decades between 1863 and 1935, traces the lives of actual families who lived there: immigrants who endured long hours in factory sweatshops to pursue their dreams.

Considering their early lives and struggles, they probably didn't celebrate a land of plenty on Thanksgiving Day. Instead, they were thankful for the opportunity to succeed and to build a better life for future generations.

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