For centuries, Thanksgiving has been a favorite American holiday.  During one of America’s bleakest years, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of America’s greatest politicians, stumbled badly when he attempted to change the traditional Thanksgiving holiday. Since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Americans customarily celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. The month of November 1939 featured five Thursdays. Calendar manufacturers had assumed that Thanksgiving would fall on the final Thursday, November 30, but Roosevelt declared that the holiday should be celebrated on November 23.

Assuming businesses and Americans would be giddy over the prospects of more shopping days before Christmas, the president was shocked at the public’s reaction. Principals complained that the change disrupted the school calendar; even more serious, Thanksgiving Day had become an almost sacred day of football and the president’s decision played havoc with the schedule.

In 1939, the Florida economy was improving. “The people of Florida are eating high on the hog,” proclaimed Governor Frederick Preston, nicknamed “Old Suwannee,”  Cone may have preferred pork, but this debate was over tradition and turkeys. Cone, a Lake City banker, and by all measures a timid governor, defiantly declared that Floridians should stick with tradition and celebrate the 1939 Thanksgiving on November 30, not November 23.

Most Tampans agreed with their governor. The Tampa Tribune concluded, “Because of different dates decreed by Roosevelt and Cone, a lot of workers will have two holidays, kids in many families will get turkey twice within a week, and butchers and grocers are looking for a record business.”

In St. Petersburg and Miami, mayors defied their governor and sided with merchants and the president.

In December 1941, Congress resolved the situation by fixing Thanksgiving’s date as the fourth Thursday of November.

St. Petersburg Times, Wednesday, November 29 1939
St. Petersburg Times, Wednesday, November 29 1939

Throughout the South, Turkey Day had long matched historic rivals: Georgia Tech and Auburn, Vanderbilt and Sewannee, and locally the Hillsborough and Plant High Schools. Huge crowds packed the University of Tampa’s Phillips Field for the annual Thanksgiving game.

Football captivated Floridians, its intensity felt not only at college campuses, but in the cane fields and red hills, paper mills and big cities. Attendance at high school games frequently outdrew collegiate games. From the Perdido River to Key Biscayne to the Keys archipelago, Floridians worshipped the Apopka Blue Darters, the Chattahoochee Mighty Yellow Jackets, the Key West Conchs, the Lake Wales Highlanders, the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, the Largo Packers, the Lemon Bay Mantas, the Pompano Beach Beanpickers, the Seabreeze Fighting Sandcrabs, and the Tarpon Springs Spongers.

So popular was football in Dade County that three high schools, Miami, Jackson, and Edison, called the Orange Bowl home. For a quarter century, 1925-50, the Miami High Stingarees carved out a legendary record, defeating every Dade County challenger. Miami High so dominated rivals that its teams won the state title four times in the 1950s. A 1965 game between Miami High and Coral Gables drew 48,631 fans. Football intensified natural rivalries between towns and within cities: High Springs and Alachua, Marianna and DeFuniak Springs, Monticello and Madison, Haines City and Auburndale, the Jay High Royals and the Altha High Wildcats. J. Earle Bowden, a longtime observer of West Florida manners and morals, described the meaning of football to his region: “Giggly girls giggle. Mammas choke back joyful tears. Papa stands strong and proud. It’s Friday night and high school football. . . .  Hear the big drum roll; tom-tom beat for a noisy crowd bathed in hot lights on chilly Florida nights.”

Memories of Thanksgiving in Florida mingled smells of turkey with the thump of football.   The 1950 Thanksgiving game between Miami High and Miami Edison drew a crowd of 36,000. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Key West Conchs fielded memorable teams with talented players (George Mira) and fiercely loyal fans who chanted, “Grits, grunts, coconut pie! V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!”

The year 1939 may have witnessed two Thanksgivings, but it is doubtful whether many Tampa households enjoyed turkey on back to back Thursdays. Still reeling from the Great Depression, 1939 Tampa afforded few luxuries, and a 10-lb. turkey was indeed a luxury.

A working-class family sacrificed dearly for a plump Tom Turkey. The price remained steady, ranging between 23 and 32 ¢ per pound between 1910 and 1940, although the price spiked to 60 ¢ a pound in 1925 (a price equivalent to $6.50  a pound in today’s market).  Turkey was far more expensive than ham or steak. In 1935, housewives paid 32 ¢ a pound for turkey, while ham cost 29 ¢ a pound and sirloin steak for 19 ¢ a pound.

Fixings added to the expense. In 1915, a quart of Cape Cod cranberries sold for 20 ¢, a two-pound Minerva cake fetched a dollar, as did a jar of brandy peaches—equivalent to $18.42 when factored for inflation.

Families, then as now, could opt to dine out. In 1935, Morrison’s Cafeteria on Florida Ave. advertised a roast turkey dinner, including pecan and oyster dressing and fresh cranberry sauce, for 23 cents. A slice of pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream added a nickel to the bill.

In 1959, America was at peace, everyone liked Ike (President Dwight Eisenhower), the economy was strong, and Florida’s population was approaching 5 million. But a thunderbolt from Washington D.C. disrupted tradition. In early November, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare announced that a test on a cranberry bog on the Pacific West Coast revealed traces of a dangerous herbicide. The official recommended the American housewives not buy cranberries! The cranberry market collapsed in one of America’s first food scares.

Cranberries are back! But alas, Morrison’s and Phillips Field are gone, Hillsborough and Plant long ago abandoned the Thanksgiving game tradition, and turkeys are cheap, the result of poultry factories that produce birds with breasts so large they cannot walk. But Thanksgiving is still glorious. Hail to the turkey!

Featured image from above: Governor Collins’ daughter Darby with Thanksgiving turkey at mansion – Tallahassee, Florida (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)