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Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

The Possum Dinner

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

While most East Texans were planning Thanksgiving dinners in 1929, four old friends in Frankston were sitting down for a meal of possum and sweet potatoes.

W.W. Scarborough's decision to invite Davis Gardner, Lee Jowell and Ralph Levassar for a possum dinner at Scarborough Springs led to one of East Texas' most unusual culinary events during the years of the Great Depression.

The four friends enjoyed their 1929 meal so much that they decided to invite everyone in Frankston in 1930. Forty-seven people showed up. After that, the Frankston Possum Dinner attracted people from all over East Texas, as well as several neighboring states. Metropolitan newspapers and the wire services made the dinner a celebrity event with stories appearing throughout the country.

Aunt Eugenia Carey, a beloved Frankston cook, prepared the 1929 dinner and the others that followed for ten years. The meal began with a simple menu, possums and sweet potatoes, but it soon evolved into much more.

Successive dinners included beef, pork, mutton, bear, elk and bison meat, ducks, chickens and turkeys and some things the cooks were reluctant to identify. And, of course, there was plenty of fresh possum meat.

Side dishes included crackling bread, sweet potato pies, potato salad, gingerbread and other traditional dishes from East Texas.

Guests often brought possums to the dinner and awards were given to those who brought the largest. A photograph sent around the country after one dinner showed Blue Whitesides and Gaylon Halbert holding up two king-sized possums before they became a meal.

The annual dinner continued for ten years during the depression, but in 1939, following the death of founder W.W. Scarborough, his friends began looking for a way to honor the Possum King. They decided the best way was to make the 1939 dinner the biggest ever--something Scarborough would have appreciated.

With only a month to set up the November dinner, Scarborough's fiends did their job well. When the dinner began, the pits held 1,100 pounds of beef, 900 pounds of pork, 600 pounds of mutton, and 140 fat possums.

Someone came up with the idea of picking a grand marshal for the dinner by staging a pistol-shooting contest between three East Texas sheriffs--Jess Sweeten of Henderson County, W.G .Roden of Anderson County, and Mary Brunt, who had been appointed sheriff in Cherokee County after her husband Bill was killed in a shootout with a bootlegger.

Out of courtesy, Sweeten and Roden allowed Mrs. Brunt to shoot first, and she did so well that, in a chivalrous gesture, the two male sheriffs forfeited the contest to the Cherokee County law woman.

J.A. Houston brought in 1939's biggest possum, weighing nearly ten pounds, and was awarded a suit of Dickey's khakis as his prize.

Although plans were made to have 140 possums for dinner, a half-dozen were released and scrambled up a sweetgum tree to watch the crowd devour their cousins.

Some 3,500 men and women were served possum (and the rest of the menu) on five long tables. However, there is no record of how many of the guests declined possum servings. Although plans were made to have a 1940 Possum Dinner, the country's preoccupation with the widening war in Europe put a cloud over the event. There was not another Possum Dinner held in Frankston.


© Bob Bowman November 12, 2006 Column
More Bob Bowman's East Texas
"All Things Historical" archive

A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers


Forum:
Subject: possum and sweet potatoes

Just read Mr. Bowman's column about the annual possum & sweet' taters dinner. My mother had an American Woman's Home cookbook, circa early 1940's, which I still have. Way in the back are recipes for cooking possum, armadillo, woodchuck, raccoon and the more popular squirrel. In another old Louisiana cookbook I have from her, there is a recipe for cooking nutria. I never thought of myself as a picky eater, ever, but I must say, I would gladly declare myself a vegetarian on the spot if presented with these critters. - Frances Giles, September 16, 2012

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