When the Martin family says Thanksgiving is about family, they mean it -- all 160 of them.
Since the 1930s, the families of the 10 children of the late Mahlon and Elsie Martin have gathered together for a holiday meal, bringing along their children, and later grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren.
“It's grown quite a bit. My one uncle had 10 kids,” said Eugene Horst, the son of Eva Martin Horst, who was Mahlon and Elsie's oldest child. “There's a lot more gray hairs every year.”
On Thursday, the family gathered for its final Thanksgiving dinner, with approximately 160 sharing the lunchtime meal at Groffdale Mennonite Church in Leola.
It was quite different from when the family dinners began at the Martins' farm on Peters Road in New Holland.
“The men would go hunting for rabbits and pheasants, and the kids would play around until the ladies made dinner,” recalled Shirley King, a granddaughter of Mahlon and Elsie.
When the extended family outgrew the Martin farm, they met at daughter Dorothy's home for a few years before moving the tradition to the Bareville Fire Hall in 1958. Around 60 family members attended the meal at that time.
“We did not use paper plates the first year at the fire hall. Now we use paper plates,” King said with a laugh.
By 1998 the family had grown so big that the dinner had to be moved again. They rented Groffdale Mennonite Church, where they continued to meet through this year.
When all of Mahlon and Elsie's children were alive, they alternated yearly between the five girls and five boys taking lead on the food. Now, a committee consisting of either the boys' descendants or the girls' descendants coordinates all of the meal components.
Quantities for each item are calculated and then divided among several family members. For instance, four people were responsible for bringing a 25-pound turkey, four others were responsible for each bringing enough mashed potatoes for 25 people and three people were responsible for each bringing enough cranberry sauce for 30 people.
“I've always enjoyed going before I had to make a turkey,” said Mim Martin. This year was a boys' year for food, so Mim was on turkey duty as the daughter of Mahlon and Elsie's late son Sam.
“We've always had good food. The Martins are good cooks,” Mim added.
Her many relatives agreed. Richard Martin, one of two living children of Mahlon and Elsie, said food was his favorite part of Thanksgiving. For his children and grandchildren, food came second only to family as the highlight of the day.
“We have the cutest grandparents here,” said Leah Mentzer, sitting at a table filled with her cousins. “For how big our family is, we all get along.”
Mentzer and her cousins teased each other as they ate, and recalled a Thanksgiving at the fire hall when their mothers all sang “We are family” onstage.
“No one understands your family as much as your cousins,” Marie Martin said.
That sentiment transcended generations.
“To be able to have grown up in a family that stuck together like this to me is a very precious memory,” said King, who is 75. “This was a time that was put aside, and the thing I feel was remarkable was that we kept it Thanksgiving Day. It was a priority in our lives.”
As the family has grown; however, staying close to so many members has gotten harder. They decided to make this year's meal the final Thanksgiving hurrah.
Janet Martin, another granddaughter of Mahlon and Elsie, said her children and grandchildren plan to start their own annual Thanksgiving meal.
“There's 23 of us now. We'll be doing the same thing basically ... Life is full of changes. There's always something you miss, but I think it's good to get our tradition started while I'm still here.”
Several family members also said plans were in the works for an extended family reunion at another time of year. Although there may not be turkey next time around, one thing these 160 relatives are sure to enjoy is each other's company, whether in the oldest generation or the newest.
“I'm thankful for family and our many blessings,” said 87-year-old Arlene Brubaker, a daughter of Mahlon and Elsie.
Her words were echoed by 8-year-old Zyrell Martin, a great-great-grandson of Mahlon and Elsie. When asked his favorite part of the day, he said simply, “I like hanging out with my family.”