Although most of us recall from elementary school that the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth Colony in 1621, it was not until 200 years later that President Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November to be a national day of thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the timeless nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine with untold influence in the 19th century, led the campaign for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her advocacy for the national holiday began in 1846 and lasted 17 years before it was successful.
Mrs. Hale wrote letters to five U.S. Presidents through these years, from Zachary Taylor to Abraham Lincoln, in her crusade to establish this national holiday but it was Lincoln who was finally convinced. He authorized it as a unifying day of thankfulness and praise to God amidst the stress caused by the Civil War.
Throughout the years, some Thanksgivings were more poignant than others depending on the circumstances the communities or entire nation was facing at the time. In Conway, events were often scheduled in Conway to pause and give thanks as a community. A special community Thanksgiving service was held each year at First Baptist Church beginning in 1904. This practice continued for decades.
At Thanksgiving 1918, just after World War I ended, a great national liberty sing was observed across the nation, including Conway. All Americans at home and overseas gave thanks and sang the same songs on Thanksgiving Day. A national committee recommended and disseminated the song list that was followed around the country.
Starting in 1928, an annual Conway-Morrilton football game at ASTC’s Estes Field was held on Thanksgiving Day. The afternoon attracted quite a large gathering of Morrilton fans as well as a large Conway fan turnout.
During the Depression, the holiday was fixed on the fourth Thursday of November due to a calendar issue with a fifth Friday in November. Since advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate, Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of Macy’s, convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to fix the holiday on the fourth Thursday to expand the Christmas shopping season. Roosevelt agreed, and Congress made it official in 1941 just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the first year that the U.S. was involved in World War II, the annual Thanksgiving game between Conway and Morrilton was continued. Morrilton rallied late in the game to forge a 13-13 tie with the Wampus Cats. The bitter rivalry on the field, however, resulted in a near free-for-all among the athletes after the game.
There was no game the next year because all schools had abandoned football for the duration of the war. Many coaches had been called into service plus rationing of gas and tires made it impossible to transport the teams.
The Conway Ministerial Alliance, made up of various area churches, began sponsoring a Union Thanksgiving Service at one of the local churches in the 1960s. The 1968 service was held at the First Church of the Nazarene.
In addition to special church services, there have also been various community efforts to provide community Thanksgiving dinners in recent decades. Beginning in 1988, Faulkner County Sheriff Bob Blankenship and his wife, Catherin, led efforts to serve a community Thanksgiving dinner in the fellowship hall of Second Baptist Church. By 1992, 350 were being served, but by 2008, some 500 to 600 were being fed.
The Blankenships discontinued the event after that 2008 Thanksgiving meal. Second Baptist Church sold facility on Polk Street and built a new campus on Dave Ward Drive about that time.
In our fast-paced world that seems so anxious to be on to the next big thing, it is my hope that you take the time this week to pause and give thanks to an awesome God whose mercy and grace have sustained us through another year. Happy Thanksgiving!
Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.