Hugs and handshakes joined turkey and gravy on the menu at the Lanesboro Faith Discovery Community church.
For Lee and Mary Peterson, it was plan B after Wednesday’s snow squashed plans for a nearly four-hour drive the day before Thanksgiving.
“Mother Nature didn’t let us get out of town,” Mary Peterson said.
While the Lanesboro couple couldn’t go to their son’s dinner in Wapello, Iowa, they knew they’d be welcome at the table for the community dinner at the former United Methodist Church.
“We’ve been here before when family hasn’t planned to get together,” Mary Peterson said, adding the community meal and company never fails to add to the holiday.
Pat Roemhildt, of Lanesboro, said it’s the same mix that brought her and her friends to the meal Thursday.
“What’s really great is you pretty much know everybody who’s here,” she said.
Debra Danielson, who’s been preparing the annual meal for 17 years, said the goal is to bring together friends and strangers to share a single meal of thanks and build community.
The idea stemmed from an idea following a Bible study at the church.
“I felt like doing something to give back to the community,” Danielson said.
What started as a meal for about 50 people has grown to more than 200 eating at the church and another 50 meals delivered to community members, all at no cost to those wanting a traditional meal.
On Thursday, Danielson and a small group of volunteers had eight 18-pound turkeys, 90 pounds of potatoes, two large roasters of dressing and 18 pies ready when they started serving at 11 a.m.
While some preparations started the day before, Danielson said she was working at approximately 2:30 a.m. Thursday to ensure she was ready for her guests at the church.
As the meal has grown, Danielson said she’s enlisted more help to ensure everything runs smoothly.
It meant her son Mathew Johnson was on hand Thursday, along with his wife, Shannon, and their children.
“We want to make sure they had enough help,” he said, noting he was planning to return to Oronoco Thursday afternoon to serve a family Thanksgiving dinner.
The added help allowed Cheryl Lamon to give up her job as a server and help greet community members and others. She said people are known to come throughout the region to share the meal, and families gather from even farther away.
The result, she said, is a mix of people she knows and others she was meeting for the first time.
“It’s a community event, and people really appreciate it,” she said.
Danielson said the growth seen throughout the years really got its start in 2007, when community members pulled together to help serve their neighbors.
In the wake of flooding that engulfed neighboring Rushford that year, she said the usual crowd of 50 swelled to more than 200 for the first time.
“I called people in town who were having dinner, and they brought their food over,” she said, noting leftovers and food from other family dinners helped feed the community that day.
Since then, the numbers have ranged from 150 to more than 200, and by noon Thursday they appeared to be on track for that turnout again, as approximately 100 people were eating in the church as others were leaving with full stomachs and more were arriving for the meal.
While the meal is served without cost, many participants made a point Thursday to stop and make donations.
Danielson said all money collected will be sent to the local food pantry. Last year, the donations totaled more than $1,000 to provide food for others.
Evelyn Larson and Dewey Hungerholt were among the first to sit down for the community meal.
It was a return trip for Larson but the first time for Hungerholt. Still, both said it was appreciated on a day when family and friends gather around similar meals.
“The roads were so bad, we turned down invitations from our families,” Hungerholt said, noting time with friends made a good plan B for the holiday.