How was Thanksgiving celebrated back in 1881 in Leadville? First of all, it was a fairly new holiday at that time. Thanksgiving dates back to 1863 during the Civil War when it was instituted by President Abraham Lincoln. So one might assume that 18 years later there would be speeches given and editorials written that might include a plea to heal the wounds of the Civil War and be thankful for the wealth that came from minerals extracted from the earth here that caused Leadville to be known throughout the world.

On that day in 1881, described as bright and beautiful by the Leadville Weekly Democrat, a predecessor to the Herald Democrat of today, people were ready to commemorate the holiday.

In the morning, residents headed to various churches to hear what the different clergy had to say. These included the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, the Democrat said.

Many members of local military organizations could be found at St. George Episcopal Church listening to the Rev. Dr. T. J. Mackay. Mackay was well known for his sermons and spoke throughout the country, although his home was in Leadville. He also served as chaplain of the Tabor Light Brigade.      

Somewhat surprisingly, Mackay’s words in 1881 could mirror what some speakers of today might be saying. His main topic concerned immigration. Back then, like today, there were those who were skeptical of immigrants (we might even say fearful) and tended to be less than welcoming. There was no talk back then of building walls as we’ve heard in recent years, but then those early immigrants generally arrived by boat.

Mackay, however, believed that immigrants would strengthen America.

“Towards us today are trooping all nations and languages,” Mackay said. “They come from persecuted Ireland, from the tyranny of Russia, from the military despotism of Germany, from every quarter of the globe do they come like our Puritan fathers, out from oppression and from over the seas, seeking a land where the soul may be free. This is their glorious aim. I am not one of those who fear the results of this great immigration of diverse races. It is an infusion of rich, strong blood and a union of races that will result in a race of men and women superior, not inferior, to any the world has ever seen.

“Let them come. We need their strong arms and willing hands to cultivate our broad acreage that must lie fallow under the sun and rain.”

It is gratifying to know that the newspaper chose to print his words.

Mackay then described what is, in his opinion, the biggest threat to the nation’s continued prosperity. It is, he said, “the enormous growth of corporations controlling entire states and building such power that they can either openly or in secret act at naught the will of the people as expressed in the ballot box or in the legislatures of various states.

“I caution you free citizens of a free republic to guard well your precious heritage of liberty lest some day you waken up to find yourselves bound hand and foot by the very institutions you have nursed and protected. Mere wealth adds nothing to a nation’s glory. It is a nation’s soul that constitutes true greatness.”

Although he was a clergyman, Mackay also demonstrated a strong desire to keep religion out of the public schools. 

“We should watch with suspicion any attempt made by no matter what religious body to interfere with he public school system,” he said. He saw the public schools as a furnace that refined the dangerous elements that come from other civilizations.

I believe much of what Mackay said 141 years ago will resonate with many Leadvillians today who may also express some frustration that these issues are still being debated.  

Once the speeches were over, Leadville turned to the traditional turkey dinners. The Democrat speculated that there were turkeys on most tables that day, and people of all social levels were partaking of the festivities, from those who attended the dinner put on at City Hall by the ladies of the Baptist church, open to all, to those invited to more exclusive gatherings at private homes.

The newspaper also reported that as midnight approached on Thanksgiving Day, those toiling in the composing room at the Democrat were visited by the Hon. John C. Marshall with a box of Havana cigars and a “liberal supply of the commodity that both cheers and invigorates.” However cheerful and invigorated the pressmen were, not to mention thankful, it’s worth noting the paper came out the next day, as it should, right on deadline. 

Martinek can be reached at

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