By Terry Rogers
The ten children of Cornelius and Cora Swain VanVorst always celebrated Thanksgiving dinner together, gathering at the VanVorst homestead until they outgrew that location. The dinner was moved to a daughter’s basement but, eventually, the basement grew too small for the growing family.
“So, 50 years ago, the family moved the celebration to Millwood Hall,” Diane Retzlaff said. “We began celebrating there when there was no running water, a potbelly stove for heat, a wood fueled cookstove and no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse provided by the hall. The youngest members of the family felt like pilgrims because of the lack of modern conveniences.”
Retzlaff explained that when people married into the VanVorst family, they learned quickly that they were expected to attend Thanksgiving dinner. For many years, “Mom-Mom Cora,” as she was known, would cook delicious fresh turkeys for the dinner. Her cooking was so anticipated each year that, one year, the youngest family member, only 11-hours old, joined the celebration, famous dishes and fellowship.
“Each gathering would document the newest babies, the boyfriends or girlfriends of the younger members and the recent engagements or weddings,” Retzlaff said. “We recognized milestones like special birthdays or wedding anniversaries, the first deer, graduations and more. So many memories have been enjoyed and cherished. There have been many times that the celebrations of in-laws conflicted with the VanVorst celebration but each family member did their best to attend. Some could not, such as those serving their country or for other reasons, but they always looked forward to returning and joining us again. We have had as many as 84 sit down to dinner on Thanksgiving.”
Cornelius was the great grandson of General Cornelius W. VanVorst who fought in the Civil War. He was also a founding member of Jersey City, New Jersey. General VanVorst was the son of “Faddy” VanVorst who was well known during Colonial Days. His father was known to be a lover of fine horses and clothing, passing a love of the finer things down to his son who built a stunning mansion in Jersey City when other Northerners lived simply. During the war, he fought with the New York regiments. Tired of the northern winters, mountains and rocky soil, General VanVorst moved to Milford at the encouragement of his good friend, General Alfred Torbert, in the late 1800s.
General VanVorst purchased a farm at the intersection of what is now Milford-Harrington and Canterbury Roads. He grew peaches and other fruit for many years. When the peach-yellow infestation arrived between 1890 and 1920, his peach orchards were wiped out and he began growing wheat and corn, according to Milford historian Dave Kenton.
Retzlaff explained that this year is special to the family as they have lost three members since March. There are also health issues among many family members and some are afraid that the annual gathering may end. Retzlaff hopes that the tradition will continue and is grateful that Millwood Hall reserves the location for the family every Thanksgiving day.