Dinner celebrating 20 years; Free Thanksgiving meal in Jamestown a community eventIt will soon be 20 Thanksgivings since Fritz Buegel decided the holiday should be about sharing the traditional dinner with others. Since then, the Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Jamestown has grown way beyond his expectations. He started with the idea of providing dinner for those who were alone or passing through town on the holiday. But as his widow, Judy, said the dinner was also about community.
It will soon be 20 Thanksgivings since Fritz Buegel decided the holiday should be about sharing the traditional dinner with others.
Since then, the Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Jamestown has grown way beyond his expectations. He started with the idea of providing dinner for those who were alone or passing through town on the holiday. But as his widow, Judy, said the dinner was also about community.
“Fritz wanted the community coming together on Thanksgiving,” Judy said. “But its original intent was for people who needed a meal.”
Fritz died eight years after that first shared Thanksgiving, when those enjoying the dinner numbered less than 100. Last year, 546 meals were served, either in the Concordia Lutheran Church basement or home-delivered — all free of charge.
“We didn’t have many people the first several years,” Judy said. “It just warmed my heart to see all the people there last year.”
Those first few years, Fritz did most of the work on the dinner from preparation to cleanup.
“Fritz loved to cook big quantities of food,” Judy said. “He did the organizing and most of the cooking. It was very labor intensive and he’d be exhausted by the time he got home. But Fritz was kind of a one-man band.”
That’s not to say he didn’t welcome help. Judy, his daughter, Lisa, and her husband, Tom Boerger, were pressed into service early on. And the Community Thanksgiving Dinner became the family’s tradition.
“I haven’t cooked a turkey in 20 years,” Judy said. “I go every year to help the crew in the morning or do whatever is needed. And any of the family who are here also help out.”
In fact, the night before he died Fritz talked to Tom about the upcoming dinner. Judy said Fritz had told his son-in-law, if anything happened to him, Boerger would be responsible for the annual Thanksgiving dinner.
And for years after Fritz’s death 12 years ago, the Boergers oversaw the dinner as it grew into a community event. But it takes a lot more than family to provide upward of 500 Thanksgiving dinners. It takes local businesses donating food and funds. And it takes an army of volunteers — about 100 on site, off site, before, during and after.
“It’s the generosity of the people in the community that has kept it going,” Judy said. “There’s never a problem finding people to work. They arrange their family holiday around this dinner. Fritz got it going, but now it’s a community affair.”
Two of those volunteers graduated to co-coordinators. Sue Corwin and Amy Neustel started volunteering early in Fritz’s venture. They shared his vision then of a community event and want to see it grow even more.
“We’re always hoping for more people,” Neustel said. “This is a welcome to new people to the community.”
Corwin and Neustel coordinate the purchase and preparation of turkeys with all the fixings including homemade pie. Neustel is in charge of the home-delivered meals — the “to-go girl.” She said it began during Fritz’s years with the idea of providing a Thanksgiving meal for the home-bound. Last year, between 200 and 250 of the meals were “to go” and were delivered to those who couldn’t get to the church.
Originally, the on-site and off-site work occurred in the same kitchen.
“We were serving in-house and putting “to go” boxes together and it was pretty crowded,” Neustel said. “Now we work in a separate room. I’ve had the volunteers for a lot of years so we have a good routine.”
After volunteers prepare the 22 turkeys, they’ll be roasted at Jamestown College. Then, Corwin said, the volunteers will be back in late afternoon to cut them up. Others make the dressing. Thanksgiving morning more volunteers make up the other fixings — potatoes, corn and gravy — for the meal.
Still others get ready the church basement for serving, “to-go” drivers prepare to travel and other drivers pick up and deliver dinner guests. When the dinner is over at 1 p.m. the volunteer clean-up crew takes over.
“When people volunteer we can find all kinds of chores for them to do,” Corwin said.
When the business closed that used to make the pies, Neustel’s mother volunteered. That was about 10 years ago and this year will be the first she hasn’t. Neustel said her 83-year-old mother has had health problems.
But the pies will still be homemade. Neustel and a couple of volunteers are making 38 pies. She said her mother, Anita Scholz, expects to be rolling out pie dough next year again.
There are even people who volunteer to answer the phone at the church. They start Monday taking “to-go” orders, answering questions and accepting donations and volunteers.
And it all goes together year after year like clockwork. But not without an occasional worry.
“On the day I’ll wonder if we have enough, but we always do,” Corwin said.
“Sue and I have been doing this so long now, we’ve ironed out the kinks,” Neustel said. “We’ve got a good support group and a lot of people who help.”
Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org