SIERRA VISTA — When comparing Thanksgiving 100 years ago to how it’s celebrated today, Pearl O’Neill, who will be 104 in February, reflects on family traditions that have survived the test of time.
Born on Feb. 16, 1916, O’Neill was raised on a New Jersey dairy farm with no electricity. At the time of her birth, Woodrow Wilson was the country’s 28th president, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was not on the country’s radar, and the U.S. was one year from entering into World War I.
“The early 1900s were a very different time in a lot of ways, but my family always celebrated Thanksgiving with a big dinner where we all gathered around the table, just like families do today,” O’Neill said. “I had four brothers and one sister, and we always had a hired hand on our farm. We raised all the food we ate, so even when the country was going through hard times, my family worked hard on our farm and we always had plenty to eat. My mother put up sauerkraut in large crocks, stuffed bell peppers with cabbage slaw and put them down in our cellar where it was always cool.”
O’Neill’s father had a smoke house, so the family enjoyed plenty of sausage, bacon and ham.
Thanksgiving morning started bright and early by taking care of the animals and doing chores around the farm, O’Neill recalled.
“It was always cold on those mornings, but we all pitched in and helped with the chores. We used kerosene lamps in the winter for light so we could see to milk the cows,” said O’Neill, who did not live in a house with electricity until she was in her early 20s.
Instead of turkey, O’Neill’s family had roast chicken with stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Much like today, we had a huge Thanksgiving feast with mashed potatoes, string beans, home-canned cabbage slaw, pickles and canned fruit. Of course, we always had pumpkin and apple pies, with everything raised on our farm.”
Today, O’Neill says her favorite Thanksgiving dishes are mashed potatoes and gravy, bread stuffing and string bean casserole.
She lives in Hereford on her property where she has a large garden and a greenhouse. While O’Neill walks with a cane and has started to slow down through the years, she continues to grow a variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables.
“I still can and freeze peaches, pears and tomatoes,” said O’Neill whose greenhouse is filled with herbs and container plants she starts from cuttings.
“I grow sage, oregano, lemongrass and Chinese chives in the greenhouse and I have winter crops growing in my garden. I go into my garden nearly every day and take care of the plants. Gardening keeps me going,” said O’Neill, who founded the Sierra Vista Gardening Club in 1991 and is now an honorary member.
Every year, up until the past three years, O’Neill has always cooked a huge Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. This year, she’s been invited to a neighbor’s house for the celebration.
“I’m going to make a string bean casserole and a butter squash cake for Thanksgiving,” O’Neill said. “Most people really like both of those, so I think they’re good choices.”