In Great Falls, the Fifth Avenue Restaurant presented a nine-course meal for the public featuring everything from “Oyster soup and Baked Trout with Egg Sauce (to) Roast Goose, Fillet of Beef, Ribs of Pork with Green Olives, (and) Mountain Bear.”
Even more lavish was the private dinner in Helena given by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Seligman, “which was admirably served and consisted of fifteen courses which took from 3 p. m. to 7 to discuss.”
It was November 1889, and Montanans “had special cause for thanks giving.”
After all, reported the Helena Weekly Herald, “We have gained the long coveted prize of Statehood that never can be taken away from us.”
Governor Benjamin White encouraged employers to give workers the day off, “without the loss of their daily income (and) make the first thanksgiving by anniversary of our grand young State worthy of her law-abiding, generous and Christian people.”
The Butte fire brigade “observed Thanksgiving by having a ball and the gallant ‘laddies’ in their bright hued uniforms were most devoted to the fair ones who graced the occasion with their presence,” reported the Butte Semi-Weekly Miner.
In Missoula, a big sale was underway on napkins and linens for the holiday table – in fact, the “handsomest linens for the money you have ever seen” – at the Chicago Bee Hive store.
Downtown shoppers were also urged to stop by the Higgins bank to check out a “fine specimen of Arctic Owl” on display. It was caught alive and uninjured by Higgins’ well-known dog, “Duke.”
Some folks were still a bit worried about safety downtown, but police assured them they’d nabbed “Griffin, the pickpocket” so you could walk about confidently. He was serving out his 60-days sentence in the county slammer, with “the usual bread and water allowance.”
Among the most excited in Missoula were Doctors Mills and Parsons and a few other notables. They were thick into planning what was certain to be the event of the season – a foxhunt – which they felt sure was becoming the “national sport!”
The gentlemen, in their letter to the editor of the Missoulian newspaper promoting the event, went as far as to say, “Those who do not enjoy the enchantment of the chase and feel the blood swiftly thrilling through their veins while listening to the grand orchestra of a pack of hounds, making the welkin ring with their musical notes as they strain every nerve” to capture the prey, “must have feelings as callous as an Anchorite.”
So successful would be their hunt, they even apologized in advance to local piano dealers: “We are sorry…for after the ladies hear the music of the hounds, the pianos will be sold and the money invested in fox hounds!”
A “full grown coyote” was to be taken to “South Missoula” (at that time, a reference to basically anything south of the Higgins bridge), then led “a distance of some five miles and return” to give the hounds the scent to follow.
After all that sniffing and howling and tracking was complete, the coyote would be given a half mile lead “and the deer and grey hounds will be turned loose and may the best dog get there.”
For the less sporting type, “the spacious parlors of the Beckwith residence” were being prepared for a “delightful party (to be) given by the Misses Beckwith and Mr. and Mrs. C. H. McLeod.” The event was to feature “euchre, music, dancing and an epicurean luncheon.”
Meantime, the Philipsburg Mail predicted townspeople “mean to enjoy Thanksgiving this year with old time enjoyment,” given the number of people arriving in town. The dance at Morse’s hall was expected to be “the event of the day,” and the weather was perfect for sleighing.
There were, to be sure, a few places in the newly-minted State of Montana where observances were muted, if held at all.
A note from a correspondent in Kibbey, Montana (which he described as being “forty miles and more from Great Falls, in the Upper Belt region”) reported, “Thanksgiving day passed almost wholly unobserved in this vicinity.”
He added, “One good puritan soul sent a forlorn ranchman a pie for his Thanksgiving dinner and he wanted to know when Thanksgiving was.”
To the south, the Red Lodge Picket reported, “Thanksgiving was not observed (here) to any alarming extent. The ungodly monkeyed with the wine cup, and the pious people ate turkey dinner and sang a few religious hymns.”
The reporter admitted, “We masqueraded with the latter by special invitation and felt as awkward and embarrassed as a girl in her first corset.”
As Thanksgiving nears 131 years later, we find ourselves not quite knowing exactly how to observe the holiday – given the remarkable increase in Covid-19 cases here and nationwide.
But vaccine development is looking very promising. So just as in 1889, we do have “special cause for thanks giving.”
Let’s all just try to celebrate safely.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.