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Watch now: A Thanksgiving to remember for residents of the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School
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Pieces from our past

Watch now: A Thanksgiving to remember for residents of the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School

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The archives at the McLean County Museum of History are filled with photos from holidays of days long gone by — from shoppers in the bustling stores of downtown Bloomington and uptown Normal to couples kissing under the mistletoe, ice skating parties at Miller Park and everything in between. And thanks to The Pantagraph Negatives Collection, the museum can share more stories of how members of our community have celebrated the holidays over the years. One such story comes from a special Thanksgiving celebrated at the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School (ISSCS) in Normal in 1945.

ISSCS Thanksgiving meal

About 400 students, employees and guests enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in 1945 at the Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's School in Normal. The family-style dinner with everyone eating together was the first in the history of the school except for lawn picnics. Holiday meals were previously served separately in each cottage on the campus.

For 110 years, children in need from throughout the state of Illinois found a home at ISSCS in northeast Normal. In 1864, concerned McLean County residents urged the creation of a home “for children of deceased soldiers” and indigent children of Illinois' Civil War veterans. The following year, the state Legislature established the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home to provide care and education for indigent children of such veterans. In the spring of 1867, Jesse Fell — a significant figure in the founding of the town of Normal, Illinois State Normal University (as it then was) and The Pantagraph — organized a group of citizens who raised pledges in the amount of $50,000 (over $900,000 in today's money) in land, cash and other considerations to campaign for the home to be located in Normal. Two years later, the home in Normal was completed and opened its doors to house 180 children.

By 1899, the population of the home was expanded to include indigent children whose fathers had served in the Army or Navy of the United States during any war. As the home continued to grow, separate cottages for boys and girls began to be constructed in the early 20th century. Cottage residents were separated by age and gender, with boys living on the northwest side of the property and girls living on the southeast side of the property. The cottages were typically named as a tribute to a variety of war heroes, notable women and men, and towns and battles from faraway places (such as Oglesby and Lincoln cottages for girls, and Wilson and Cantigny for boys). In 1931, the Children’s Village cottages were built on the south end of the grounds to house younger children. These original eight cottages are now known as Normandy Village on the former ISSCS campus north of Pine Street and east of Beech Street.

School officials tried to make life at the home as normal as possible for the children. On Fridays, the children were rewarded with a movie — first held in the chapel, and by the 1930s, in the school auditorium. For many years, beginning in 1929, the representatives of every single American Legion post in Illinois made a “pilgrimage” to the home in the summer to visit with the children. The annual Legion Day included a picnic, games and amusements, and small gifts for the children. Halloween activities included a night parade, with each cottage represented by a float and the majority of children marching in costume. For Christmas, everyone enjoyed a gift from Santa. Gino Ullian, who lived at the home from 1933 to 1942, fondly remembered seeing Santa coming down the street beside his cottage with a bag of presents for the children, which they had picked out from a Sears catalog. Sports and recreational activities also kept the children occupied.

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On Thursday, Nov. 22, 1945, The Pantagraph billed this as the first time “in the history of the school” that “resident children, staff members, and other employees will eat their Thanksgiving together.” Thanksgiving dinner was usually served separately at each cottage. But this celebration included a large dinner and a program of events for the entire day. A special religious service at 10:30 a.m. was followed by a delicious turkey dinner at noon. According to chief cook Joe Pawlak, 20 turkeys, averaging 29 pounds each, were cooked to feed the over 400 hungry residents and staff.

ISSCS Thanksgiving turkeys

Sandy Sayre and Linda Gerber get a sneak preview of things to come as chief cook Joe Pawlak takes from the oven two of the 20 turkeys served at the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School on Thanksgiving 1945. The birds averaged 29 pounds each, Mr. Pawlak said.

It is worth mentioning here that Pawlak held a special place in the history of the home. He was a big man who was said to have been a bit of a grouch but showed particular kindness to troubled children at ISSCS. Pawlak lived on the grounds of the home the entire time he worked there (1935-1962), so he was a constant presence in the lives of the children.

In addition to the mouth-watering turkeys, Pawlak served up mashed potatoes and gravy, beans, stuffing, sweet potatoes and, of course, pumpkin pie for dessert! All who were in attendance agreed that the meal was “good to the last bite.”

The day’s activities concluded with a pageant titled “The Thanksgiving Story,” presented by 50 students at the school. The pageant was written by Alice Gamer (wife of Carl Gamer, the school’s director of religious education), and recreation staff assisted the students in putting on the show. Thanksgiving, like any holiday at the home, was a special time that offered a welcome break from the routine for the children.

The museum actively collects stories and photographs from all aspects of life in McLean County, including how members of our community celebrate the holidays. If you have photos and stories from your family holidays (in particular how you will be commemorating the holidays during this history-making season), please share them with us! Email our library and archives at library@mchistory.org for more information on how to do just that.

From all of us at the museum, we wish you a peaceful, safe, and healthy Thanksgiving this year.

Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column by the McLean County Museum of History. Candace Summers is director of education at the museum.

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