THE DALLES — Over the last 12 years, Ron and Tracy Linebarger had helped build what some say is the largest community Thanksgiving dinner in Oregon. But last summer, they sold their restaurant, The Baldwin Saloon, and moved to Florida.
Up stepped Milly Will. Up stepped Mel Pacheco. Up stepped Tony Stacey and Jane Morgan Hicks and Pete and Donna Reynolds and hundreds of other people — as usual.
“It’s organized by the community, prepared and cooked by the community, served by the community and eaten by the community,” says Pacheco, head chef at Cousins’ Restaurant & Saloon. “This is for everybody.”
Linebarger credits Ron Somers, the city judge and a local attorney, with starting the dinner in 1989. When Linebarger learned of it, he offered his kitchen.
Overseeing five propane burners boiling potatoes and beans and stock outside the back door of the kitchen at St. Mary’s Academy, Somers says he has seen what economic hard times, holiday stress and loneliness can do to people.
Everyone has needs, he says. Some need money. Some need company. All need food.
“I don’t know of anything like this in Oregon,” says Somers. “It’s infectious, the goodwill that it generates.”
Linebarger says the idea all along was to create a meal that could pull the community together like a big motley family, rich and poor, young and old, white collar and blue.
“It was the one day of the year, it didn’t matter who you were or what your religion or walk of life,” he says. “It was the one perfect day to come together and be thankful.”
About 300 people attended the first meal. Will, general manager for Cousins’, said she expected about 3,000 people to eat turkey, stuffing, gravy and all the fixin’s by the 4 p.m. close of service Thursday.
Most dined at the school, host site since the get-go. About 300 who couldn’t make it to the school got their meals delivered at home.
Will and her ”cousins” — restaurant workers use that title before their name — took over the lead role last summer, “because our restaurant had the capability to handle it.”
Thursday, in the midst of her third 14-hour day in a row, Will smiled when she thought about her future involvement.
“I think I’m obligated,” she said.
Planning began in September, and cooking started Sunday. Last year, knowing he was planning to move, Linebarger arranged to shift turkey prep to the commercial kitchen at Columbia Gorge Community College.
Kent Hong, a deli chef at Safeway, would cook 12 birds at a time for two hours each. Ten hours later, he had 60 turkeys for volunteers to bone on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Pacheco and 50 of the 300 volunteers began peeling 800 pounds of potatoes, piecing up 200 loaves of bread, slicing 180 heads of cabbage.
On Thursday, another tradition continued. Dozens of people brought even more desserts, some home-made, some store-bought.
“When kids come up the the table and have to make a decision, it’s fun to watch,” Linebarger recalls. “Their eyes get huge. And when they find they can have another piece, they’re in heaven.”
Carry Ramsey has been involved almost since the start. She said it’s been a tough year in The Dalles, with layoffs in the aluminum industry. She expected the tough economy to boost attendance.
The Wasco County jobless rate was pushing 10 percent in September. Ramsey, who coordinates community resources for the Oregon Department of Human Resources, says food stamp applications have doubled in the last year.
As Phil Foote and Bob Kasnick and Doug Woolsey — the High Fives Fun Time Band — diners streamed in. Need drew some. Family drew others. A chance to connect drew all.
Ken and Phyllis Farner of The Dalles came down with their family, son Dan from Mulino, son Jim and his wife, Heidi, from Sherwood, their children and a special guest — from Uzbekistan.
Mansur Amonov is studying environmental sciences on a one-year foreign exchange at Washington State University. He met the Farners on a tour last summer. Ken Farner, a retired banker, had traveled to Uzbekistan, and invited Amonov to Thanksgiving.
Thursday morning, Amonov helped deliver meals to local shut-ins. In the afternoon, he sampled Thanksgiving. “The turkey is very nice,” he says.
The experience, however, was nicer.
“In Uzbekistan, we are thinking about the U.S. people just thinking about money,” Amonov says. “Here people are using money not just for himself, but for the community.”
Tony Stacey learned of the event from his girlfriend, Jane Morgan Hicks, of Portland, and her mother, Mildred Hicks, of The Dalles. He drove down from Seattle to help out.
“I came to get together, for the camaraderie, the whole thing,” Stacey says. “I’d love to move to The Dalles.”
Pete and Donna Reynolds did move, a week ago, after 22 months in Southern California.
A former Chicago journalist, Reynolds and his wife, an accountant, are living with their three cats in a motorhome while they settle in.
They read about the community Thanksgiving in The Dalles Chronicle — and volunteered.
“We had to look for America somewhere, and we found it here,” Reynolds says. “We absolutely love The Dalles.”