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Northville's History Reminds us of Thanksgiving Blessings

Shared sacrifice and community spirit sustained Northville during difficult times.

With Thanksgiving only days away, I am finally kicking into high gear. House cleaning — or rather clutter disposal — menu-making, shopping, pie baking, etc. are now front and center.

Like the Fourth of July, I love our celebration of this American holiday despite the fact that I think Thanksgiving gets short shrift. It is lost between the Halloween frenzy and the start of the Christmas shopping season, which now seems to begin before we’ve even tossed the jack-o-lanterns.

While parades and football have become a requisite part of Thanksgiving Day, these events have little to do with the essence of this holiday. As a Congregationalist, I am acutely aware of the journey of the Pilgrims — especially the Separatists among the Mayflower voyagers. The extraordinary sacrifices made and hardships endured — particularly in the first winter when more than half of the Plymouth settlers died of starvation — is both inspiring and humbling.

The conviction of the Separatists in their quest for religious freedom was the basis for much of what was to come for our nation. The determination, fortitude and courage of those early Pilgrims would be replicated by subsequent generations over and over again in our nation’s history. As Americans, we have risen to unfathomable challenges, and today is no different.

The past few years have been trying times for our country, and especially our state. The national economic crisis has left Northville citizens, businesses, schools and municipalities grappling with challenges unfathomable only a few years ago. I know of no one in our community who has not made some sacrifice in the last year.

As we embark on this season of Thanksgiving, it is worth looking at how our community celebrated this holiday during two years — 1931 and 1942 — of the most trying times for our nation in the last century. These accounts provide us with a snapshot of how shared sacrifice and community spirit prevailed in the worst of times.

Like the rest of the nation, the effects of the Great Depression racked Northville and its citizens in 1931. The community’s two banks — Lapham State Savings and Northville State Savings — both had closed their doors. Many downtown businesses faced the same fate as reduction in the money supply eroded consumer spending and halted manufacturing. Unemployment was at an unprecedented high.

Despite the bleak conditions – or because of them — Northville continued its traditional Union service of Thanksgiving.  The November 27, 1931 edition of The Northville Record, notes the members and friends of the Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist churches “will gather together for the annual Thanksgiving services.”

As a sign of the times, it also is notes that “the offering of Thanksgiving which will be taken will go entirely to the King’s Daughters for their welfare work in the community.” 

An advertisement for the E.M.B. Market  — located on Main Street on the site now occupied by Genitti’s — advertised traditional Thanksgiving foodstuffs including cranberries (10-cents a pound), sweet potatoes (35-cents for seven pounds), lard (10-cents a pound) and coffee (27-cents a pound). The ad also noted the market would be open late Wednesday night and also Thanksgiving morning.

By 1942, the nation and Northville had emerged from the Depression only to enter the greatest world conflict in modern history. Less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II became the focal point of the nation’s attention as indicated in the Nov. 27, 1942 edition of The Northville Record. The newspaper’s coverage of the war years is a portrait of the sacrifices made by Northville’s young men and women, as well as those on the home front.

Each week, the newspaper listed an Honor Roll of those serving in the armed services.  In the Nov. 27 issue, the list of 350 in service takes up more than one-third of the front page. Many of the names can be traced to Northville’s earliest families such as Jesse Griswold, Donald VanSickle, Jas. VanValkenberg, Ivan Ely and Bill Schoultz. Others, such as Joe Spagnuolo, would become longtime merchants. John Stubenvolle would be among the first members of the Northville City Council following city incorporation in 1955.

The newspaper was filled with war-related news and advertisements urging readers to buy war bonds and volunteer for the Red Cross.

The society news in the November 27 issue is particularly poignant noting that “Mr. and Mrs. Dale Buttermore gave a dinner Sunday in honor of their son, Ralph, who is leaving for the army.”

It is followed by this announcement: “Mr. and Mrs. Alfred W. Parmenter entertained a large group of friends, mostly from Detroit, at Sunday night supper at their home on Orchard drive. The supper party was in honor of the three Parmenter sons in service who are all home on furlough.”

The Record ran a front-page feature each week titled "Keeping in Step With Our Times,” which reported on the latest war and home front news. Much of the November 27 column focuses on rationing. Highlights include:

• “Watch your coffee. Merchants’ stocks were frozen November 21. Rationing is scheduled for midnight Nov. 28. Ration is 10.4 pounds per person over age 15 per year.

• “The government wants your pennies for the copper in them. You are supposed to dig up ten pennies...and put them in circulation.

• Collection of worn or discarded silk and nylon hosiery through all retail stores having women’s and misses hosiery departments is scheduled to start Nov. 16. Please wash them before turning them in.”

• “Milk cans and all wiring fencing used on farms will be rationed through the Department of Agriculture."

And last but not least:

• “Christmas lighting will burn dimmer this year, further emphasizing the impact of total war. The War Production Board has asked city officials, civic clubs, Chamber of Commerce, merchants and citizens generally to dispense with outdoor decorative  lighting this  Christmas.”

This was just one week’s rationing story. Far more would come as the war raged on. What is compelling about these stories is the shared sacrifice asked of all citizens...the least of whom were the 350 servicemen listed on the front page, including the three Parmenter brothers — Bob, Alfred and Ray.

While 1931 and 1942 were years of unprecedented challenges, there are similarities to today. We cannot forget that we are a nation at war, and have been for more than a decade. The economic crisis, though not nearly as calamitous as the Great Depression, has reduced the standard of living for many Americans.

Despite these harsh realities, we will sit down on Thursday to give thanks for our blessings. The following editorial, written by Richard T. Baldwin, then-publisher of The Northville Record, and printed on the newspaper’s front page on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1931, captures the optimism and resolve that has sustained Americans beginning with the Pilgrims.

Its message still resonates today:

“Although beset by material losses and inconveniences, Northville has many reasons to be grateful on Thanksgiving day. Health, home and the blessings of children and friends are the portion of our people. When one has these he has all that life can hold...Northville can be grateful that its losses have been purely material. No calamity, no epidemic, no great sorrow has come to our community. Our lives have been spared, our children fill our homes with laughter and love. Friends have not failed; loyalty surrounds us on every side. Life is rich, even though banks have closed for a time. The spiritual values of life are still ours to claim."

“So we welcome the Thanksgiving of 1931 with gratitude for the blessings that have not been taken from us, with thanks even for the benefits that have come from material losses and with the certainty that the ‘best is yet to be’.”

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