One quick flip of a switch and the dim lights of the McKibben Cafeteria’s kitchen flicker to life. A door leading to a dark, cold late November morning outside swings open bringing the quiet, confined kitchen to a roar with chatter as a group of ranching men enter in one fell swoop.
This is where they will spend their entire day, cooking, mixing, cleaning, and washing dishes. They couldn’t be happier.
Today is the day for the longstanding Congregational Turkey Dinner to take place, so the chatter quickly transforms into a great deal of physical labor, at least for the young bucks. Entering its 92nd year, many come year after year to help with what one would assume is a very tall order – preparing more than a thousand pounds of food.
But it’s not. Hardworking ranchers have been coming for so long, the day goes off without a hitch year after year. Oldtimers say that is due to the social ladder that has become unwritten law. Everyone has their place, and everyone knows how to keep this operation going smooth like a well-oiled machine.
Doug Horner, a rancher who resides outside the city limits of Douglas, still considers himself a newcomer to the kitchen. It’s his 34th year, only missing one go-around since joining the group back in 1984. Life on the ranch brings long days and little time to break away to do something nice for the community. This is his chance, he said.
“I work seven days a week,” Horner explained in passing while setting out large plastic tubs that were later filled with 70 dozen dinner rolls. “This is my way to help out the church and help out the community a little bit.”
IN THE KITCHEN
Serving enough food for nearly 700 people would send most cooks running out the kitchen door never to be seen again. For this dinner, it is quite the opposite. So many of the 70-plus helpers that show up have been doing it so long, they have a good deal of when they have downtime.
Early in the afternoon, the younger guys play cards while the older folks keep an eye on the simmering food while catching up with friends they’ve likely not seen since the previous year’s turkey dinner.
“So many people have been doing it for so many years, you just go from one year to the next and have a routine,” Horner said. “That’s why we have some extra time (in the kitchen).”
Dave Sheetz can’t quite recall how long he’s been chipping in with the dinner but estimates it to be between 15 and 20 years. The people are what keep him coming back.
“I just enjoy the friendship and the camaraderie,” he said. “Some of (the guys) I see quite a few times a year, but others it’s just this time.”
One thing is for sure. If you want to help, you have to work your way up. Coming in, you would rank as a low-level dishwasher. After some time, you would become lead dishwasher and onward from there.
When Larry Gomez started, the dinner used numerous locations to prepare the food, such as a bakery and the Moose Lodge. His job was to run between all of the locations and bring everything to the actual dinner location.
He enjoys helping the newer generations learn the ropes, he said.
“The old ones show them what’s going on, and they do all the heavy lifting,” he said with a chuckle.
Scott Boner is one of the younger guys helping out, with this being the third dinner he’s participated in.
“I enjoy being with all these guys, it’s a good deal,” he said while taking a break from playing cards. “It’s a pretty big community deal and I enjoy being a part of it.”
According to organizer Dave Thompson, the gathering has become far more than a dinner to fund raise for Douglas Congregational Church of Christ to be a community social event.
“It’s a tradition that comes up through a lot of ranching families,” he said of the kitchen help. “Their parents started doing this. We’ve gone through four generations. It’s been a great community gathering since 1926.”
To say the annual dinner is a hit among the community is an understatement. The very year Horner joined was when the event moved to the cafeteria on the grounds of the Wyoming State Fair from its previous home at the Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ on N. 6th Street.
The group behind the dinner stemmed from the congregational church’s men’s group, which formed over 100 years ago in 1917. The whole reason the dinner became a long standing fundraiser was from its mission to raise funds to apply on the church’s debt. A first attempt, consisting of a fish supper where the men caught the fish themselves, netted the group $100 at 25 cents per person. A few years later, in 1926, the first turkey dinner was held at the church’s then location on N. 4th Street. The dinner has always been well-attended. Back then, folks would wait for their chance to enjoy the dinner in the church’s basement upstairs in the sanctuary, as a pianist or organist played music. The menu remains exactly the same today as it did back then.
Why mess with success?
As the years passed, the lines continued to grow. The church’s biggest year came in 2010, when 850 folks caused the dinner to run out of its main offering - turkey. It was also a year where people had to be turned away.
The unexpected turnout caused the church to rethink how they prepared. From that point forward, tickets have been pre-sold, and no tickets are sold at the door.
This year served between 675 and 700 people, Thompson said. All-in-all, they served upwards of 1,000 pounds of turkey, 400 pounds of potatoes, 50 pounds of onions, 30 gallons of gravy and 70 dozen dinner rolls.
“It was another busy turkey dinner,” Thompson said, as he surveyed the aftermath.