Fox hunts? Greased pigs? Some Montclair Thanksgiving traditions have been lost to time
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
President George Washington proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789, the last Thursday of November that year, to be a “day of public thanksgiving.”
Other presidents proclaimed different days for being thankful. In 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed Nov. 26 as a day to be thankful for the victory at Gettysburg, with its cost of so many lives.
That pretty much cemented the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, but not completely. During the Depression, President Roosevelt wanted to make the Christmas shopping season a little longer, so he proclaimed the second-to-last Thursday in November to be the holiday.
Thirty-two states went along with him; 16 chose not to, so in 1941, to end the confusion, Congress voted to make the last Thursday in November the official holiday.
Throughout the years the citizens of Montclair have celebrated Thanksgiving, on whatever date it fell, the same way we do today. They prayed, went to church, went out of their way to be charitable to those in need.
And they feasted. Turkey was usually the main course, although pork was also served in many households.
Montclairians also often went shopping on the holiday. Big department stores like Hahne’s, Bamberger’s and L.S. Plaut in Newark held large sales. So did smaller stores in Montclair such as the Harris brothers’ Bee Hive at 571 Bloomfield Ave.
When Jacob Harris retired, his brother, Louis, carried on the tradition at 537-39 Bloomfield Ave. The Louis Harris department store closed in the early 1970s.
When football became popular Thanksgiving became a big football day. Montclair High and Bloomfield High have gone head-to-head on Thanksgiving Day since 1922.
In the past Montclairians did a couple of things to celebrate the day that they don’t do any longer.
They held fox hunts on Thanksgiving. Fox hunts were not exclusive to the holiday — the horses and hounds trained all year long, and fox hunting was very much a fall sport. The Hunt Club had to pay property owners for any damage the horses and hounds did to their property.
It was practical to wait until after the harvest to “run the hounds” so there wouldn’t be any damage to crops. Just before the hunt started the riders and hounds would go to a point about a mile away from the fox’s cage, where they would be given the scent, taken from the fox’s paws.
Then the fox and hounds would go “away,” as it was called when they all started running. The hunt master would often have to “rate” or give verbal signals to the hounds to direct them to the most logical place where the fox would run.
The joy of the hunt was “jumping” the horses and showing off various equestrian skills. There were usually “hill toppers” — spectators who followed at a safe distance, often in a carriage.
Fox hunts were first organized in Montclair by the Montclair Equestrian Club in 1876. They maintained their horses and dog kennels on Orange Road. In 1880 they changed their name to the Montclair Hunt and moved the stables and kennels to the Sadler farm on Grove Street.
The farmhouse still exists, but it isn’t considered a Grove Street address any longer. It is now #10 Euclid Place.
A few years later the artist George Inness Jr. allowed them to keep the horses and hounds at his estate, Roswell Manor, on Walnut Crescent. In 1890 the Hunt moved to West Orange and changed its name to the Essex Hunt. Former Civil War Gen. George McClellan, who lived in West Orange, was the president.
There continued to be strong representation from Montclair in its membership and on the board. In 1910 the organization moved out of the area completely. It became known as the Essex Fox Hounds, with headquarters in Bernardsville.
Another thing that was popular on Thanksgiving in the past that hasn’t survived to the present was greased pig races. These also were not exclusive to Thanksgiving, but in the 1880s and 1890s they often took place on the holiday.
The committee in charge of the races looked for pigs that had a history of escaping their pens. They would feed the eligible pigs until they were about 100 pounds. They looked for porkers that were chubby and as round as possible.
The night before the race the chosen pig was shaved to remove any bristles that could be grabbed. The morning of the race the pig was smeared with grease. When the race began dozens of boys and young men would start running after the pig.
Unlike fox hunts, where the fox normally went “to ground” or hid, the participants knew where the pig was. The challenge was holding onto it.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1897 a young man nicknamed Dabby Lennon was able to maintain his grip on the pig and won. “Dabby” is an old-fashioned nickname that often meant “determined,” almost to the point of stubbornness, a virtue in this case. It took a certain amount of stubbornness to hold onto the slippery animal.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.