Illinois family brings together 60-plus relatives for Thanksgiving

Chicago News USA

Cooking is an all-hands-on-deck affair, but there’s time for fun, too. Just no watching football.

PEORIA — How do you serve Thanksgiving for 60-plus guests?

That’s a challenge commonly answered by restaurants. But the far-flung Frankland family plans, orders, prepares and serves meals in bulk for dozens of guests. The holiday overflows as a yearly reunion. For three days, the host home is transformed into a mess hall and run with military precision. All participants — many of whom come from across the country and globe — are assigned a rank (from G1 old-timers down to G4 great-grandchildren) and roles (everything from cooking to cleaning to game hosting).

Everything is homemade: 66 pounds of turkey, 22 pounds of ham, 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, three kinds of sweet potatoes, eight salads, three dressings and 240 rolls. Dessert varies but includes an ample spread of pies, cookies, cakes and plum pudding.

And that’s just for the main meal. Others follow, according to a strict and traditional timetable.

“It takes a plan to make Thanksgiving work,” said Keith Frankland, 70.

“I estimate we consume around 4,000 calories each during the day. Stretchy pants are the preferred clothes for the day.”

He and his five siblings were raised in Peoria by parents Leland and Roma Frankland.

“We’re a family that was raised to believe in family, principles and respect,” Keith Frankland said. “Sure, we have had bumps in the road, but we figured out to find solutions that worked.”

Eventually, with the kids grown, Leland and Roma Frankland moved to Bartonville. There, they would host Thanksgiving, even as the family and festivities grew every year. But by 2010, the demands had become overwhelming for the couple.

“It was just too big for them to handle any longer,” Keith Frankland said. “Imagine that: Our parents were in their 80s and couldn’t handle a party for 64 of their closest relatives.”

So, festivities were moved to the Bloomington home of daughter Marla Finch. The itinerary and duty roster has become painstakingly detailed, to ensure a smooth flow of food and fun — especially with a swarm of guests pouring in from not just central Illinois but also Ireland, Italy, California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio, Georgia, Oregon, Florida and Iowa.

“It started as one day spending time with each other, cooking together, playing together and eating together,” says Frankland’s wife, Cindy, 69, part of the family for almost 50 years. “Now it’s expanded to many days celebrating each other.”

The original duty roster ranged from G1 (Leland and Roma Frankland) to G2 (their children and spouses), G3 (the grandchildren and spouses) and G4 (great-grandchildren). Two people each year are assigned the task of formulating the jobs list ahead of time.

Part of the family comes into town early to help set up the house. Enough plates, saucers, bowls and silverware are all stored at the Bloomington home for just this occasion.The dining and living rooms are emptied of furniture, while collapsible tables (made by Leland Frankland just for this occasion) are set up in a continuous line snaking around the room.

“Our dad believed all of the family should be in the same room, which we still uphold today,” Keith Frankland said.

Each visitor brings a dish according to cooking specialty. Furthermore, upon entering the house, each family member is given a tag with their name and job. Duties include filling water glasses, carving turkey, arranging after-dinner games and washing dishes. The latter requires four, three-person crews all washing for 30 minutes to handle all of the pots, pans, dishes and silverware. Usually, the G3s handle that chore.

“They are busy watching their own kids most of the day, and this detail allows them to converse with their cousins uninterrupted for 30-minute segments,” Keith Frankland said.

The only ones spared from work are non-Franklands.

“Our Thanksgiving is seldom without visitors,” Keith Frankland said. “With five nurses and three doctors in the family, we sometimes host visiting medical staff. They are welcome and are considered Franklands for the day.

“We also have some friends who don’t have another Thanksgiving to attend, and they sometimes also attend ours. We consider them Franklands by association.”

Family or friends, all are herded to the feast for the time-honored feeding schedule:

Noon: Dinner (“There’s no waiting on late arrivals,” Keith Frankland said).

2 p.m.: Dessert. (“It’s a full meal by itself,” he says).

5:30: Turkey and ham sandwiches.

6:30 p.m.: Dessert, again.

There are activities beyond the food frenzy. Kids engage in craft projects, while adults participate in pinochle tournaments, rummy games, bingo (based on Frankland family jokes) and Thanksgiving trivia (with booby prizes). But don’t try to turn on the TV, which is a no-no — even for football.

“Having no football is the hardest thing that newbie males have to get used to,” Keith Frankland said. “It’s a good test to see if they will still stick around and actually marry the niece they came with.”

Indeed, the festivities often play a critical matrimonial role. Sara Howard — a 48-year-old G3 from Ohio — recalls bringing then-fiance Greyson Howard to his first Frankland Thanksgiving decades ago.

“When I first met Greyson, I told him that his family could have any holiday except Thanksgiving,” she said. “It took only one time for him to understand.”

Their kids have become enmeshed in the traditions with other G4s. Olivia, 15, lends a hand in making gravy with older kin, while Gabe, 10, enjoys running around with cousins he sees just once a year.

Once Thanksgiving frolicking settles down, it’s time to prepare for the next day.

On Friday, some kin head to Peoria to visit old friends or attend the Santa Claus Parade. Others assist in making turkey carcass soup, which is served all day Friday with more turkey and ham sandwiches — plus, of course, more dessert.

On Saturday, the food supply dwindles, but the togetherness does not.

“It’s a warm and fuzzy kind of three days,” Keith Frankland says. “When you walk through the house, there are kids (G4s) running around playing with other kids. I sometimes don’t know who belongs to who because I only see them once per year, and the kids grow.

“So, as you walk through the house, you sit and play Candyland with one to three kids, find out why one’s crying and eat cookies with another.”

The current head count is 65, with two irreplaceable absences. Leland Frankland died at age 89 in 2010, while Roma Frankland died in October at age 96.

“This will be a happy (Thanksgiving) but somber, since the loss of our beautiful mom,” Cindy Frankland said. “She was really looking forward to it.

“I am in charge of favors every year, and this year I have ordered 65 angel key chains for everyone, to commemorate our angel mom watching over all of us.”

The family takes comfort in the continuity of tradition.

“This isn’t just about Thanksgiving. This is a beautiful legacy created by Leland and Roma Frankland,” Cindy Frankland said. “And the tradition continues through all of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Phil Luciano: 309-686-3155;, @LucianoPhil

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