140 years of Mitchells
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 22, 2012 12:21 AM
Billy Mitchell, left, and his cousin Jake look through a book containing their family history researched and compiled by Jake. The Mitchell family will hold its 140th consecutive Thanksgiving Day family reunion at Rosewood Baptist Church this afternoon, a tradition started in 1872 by their great-grandfather, Edmond, a Civil War veteran.
Walking around their century- old homestead takes members of the Mitchell family back as far as their memories will allow.
And they find, since so much has happened in this place since the family patriarch, Jim, settled there in the late 1890s, that some stories were lost to time.
But the eldest remaining Mitchells -- the five who converged on that simple Wayne County farmhouse Tuesday -- could talk for hours about their family's most sacred tradition, about just why they felt it was so important to ensure the 140th consecutive Mitchell family Thanksgiving Day reunion would unfold today.
It isn't about the food or the fellowship.
It's really a chance to honor their heritage -- and to reconnect, in the sights, sounds and smells that come with their annual gathering, with those loved ones who are no longer at the table.
Nelson Mitchell can still see his father, Paul, preparing the main course.
"We always had barbecue. That was the staple. And barbecue like that, the main thing is that it's slow-cooked over live coals. He would spend all night cooking that pig," he said. "I go back to that -- getting up in the morning and running out to that tobacco barn where Daddy was cookin'. I can remember that just as good today as I did then. I can see him out there."
And he can still taste the sweet banana sandwiches stacked on the portion of the table he and his cousins would hover over during the prayer.
"When we were boys, you have to remember that things were different then. You didn't have everything like you do today," Nelson said. "So we boys would line up beside the table where the banana sandwiches were ... and as soon as, 'Amen,' was said, we got us one."
His cousin, Billy, remembers how the older boys would set out across the farm early in the morning to hunt for more additions to the feast.
"It used to be that quail and rabbit season came in on Thanksgiving Day," he said. "So sometimes, they would get in early enough where some of the stuff they killed would get cooked and put out on the table."
And Jake Mitchell can still taste the homemade pickles and slaw that remind him of the particular aunts who made them.
In the beginning, there were only nine at the table.
It was 1872, the very first Mitchell family Thanksgiving Day reunion -- an event hosted by Jim's father, Edmond, a Civil War veteran who was feared dead after his capture by Union forces nearly a decade earlier.
Jake is still captivated by the story of his great-grandfather's imprisonment -- by the homecoming that culminated when a bearded "stranger" approached Edmond's wife, Amanda, at a well.
"At first, she didn't even recognize him," Jake said. "But it was her husband."
Perhaps that is why Edmond started the tradition a few years after the war ended, members of the family hypothesize.
When he was being held in Hart Island Prison, N.Y., there was no guarantee that he would ever see his loved ones again.
And maybe all his father had been through is what prompted Jim to continue the reunion -- to ensure a Thanksgiving never went by without the Mitchells coming together.
"We'll never know," Jake said. "But for whatever reason, it kept going."
Ella Mitchell reaches up to secure the hands resting on her shoulders in her own.
The mother of Nelson's cousins, Billy and Carol, the man is like a son to her, she said.
And so, too, is Jake.
The "boys," as she still calls them despite their age, are, after all, the children of her late husband's brothers.
At 95 years old, she can still remember how she used to bake their favorite pie for the annual reunion.
"They all loved pumpkin pie and potato pie, so lots of times, I'd mix the potato and pumpkin," she said. "They just loved it and it was so special to me."
And she relives the hard work it took to execute the chicken pastry she was known for, the "old-fashioned chicken pastry where they used to roll it out."
"It was hard work ... but it was also a pleasure," Ella said. "Well worth it."
Her son smiled.
"Mama used to be the chief roller," Billy said.
But as the years have passed, time has shifted her role in the celebration.
This year, she will simply be another one of those who show up to give thanks for those who have passed -- the men and women who made special every Thanksgiving since she married into the Mitchell clan in 1935.
And today, the barbecue and chicken pastry will bring them back to her.
"I'm here to see another dinner, but the people who aren't, I think about that, too," Ella said. "Of course, there's a lot of them gone and that makes it sad, but then you remember the good and the sad goes away.
"Yeah, there's a lot of stories about the Mitchell family. And they all loved Thanksgiving."