Hartland — Since 1966, there have been 10 U.S. presidents, nine different Vermont governors — and one annual Hartland Roast Beef Supper season.
“It’s a tradition,” said Sherry Calkins, who has been volunteering at the suppers since 1975.
Held on six Saturdays in a row beginning on the last Saturday in January, the suppers are a fundraiser for the First Congregational Church of Hartland, also referred to as the Brick Church.
“It’s the men’s fellowship that runs it, but the ladies who do all the work,” quipped Larry Frazer, president of the men’s fellowship, as volunteers — both men and women — worked on a recent Saturday to prepare for that night’s supper.
The menu has remained unchanged since the suppers started, said Frazer, requiring up to 300 pounds of meat, two crates of cabbage, 200 pounds of potatoes and 18 big cans of green beans. The group also makes 1,000 fresh rolls for each dinner. There are four big ovens in the church’s basement kitchen — two for the roast beef and two for the rolls.
“This is not a heart-healthy meal, in particular,” Calkins acknowledged, “but it’s awful good.”
Then, of course, there’s dessert.
Carmen Summarsell recruits people to make pies for the supper, and 20 or so usually sign up make two pies each.
“I don’t indicate what kind of pies,” said Summarsell, who has volunteered for about 20 years.
Many of the volunteers have been helping out at the suppers for decades, and they are quick to share memories — such as the family with members in Brattleboro and Burlington who found the Hartland suppers a convenient central location to get together. Or the family that traveled all the way from Connecticut specifically for the supper.
Jean Day, who has volunteered at the suppers since the early 1970s, remembered that famously private author J.D. Salinger “was the first one in the door” for the suppers.
“He liked community things, even though everybody thought he was a recluse,” Calkins added.
While the suppers have remained a mainstay, getting volunteers to help out has been a challenge in recent years. As a result, the number dinners has been trimmed down to six from the original nine.
“Things change, life gets busy,” Calkins said. “It’s harder for the parents to give up Saturdays.”
But those who do volunteer come back year after year, and therein lies a joke: “The only way to stop volunteering is to die,” said Frazer, who has helped out at the suppers since the mid-1970s.
Between 30 and 40 volunteers work each dinner, some in the kitchen, some in the dining room that Melissa Perkins has overseen for about 15 years. The suppers begin at 5 p.m., with 80 people being served at once. Then, as tables clear out, more people are seated. On the first of this year’s six suppers, 226 people attended, Calkins said.
“That was low, but the first one usually takes a while to get the word around,” she said.
To break even, 150 people must attend, Frazer said. The dinners cost $15 for adults, $7 for children 10 and under, and the men’s fellowship donates the $9,000 or so it raises through the supper season to the Congregational Church’s general fund. In years past, the money has gone toward building repairs, among other needs.
Throughout the decades, the suppers have a consistent presence in town. Since the 1960s, Frazer said, he can recall only “one or two” that were canceled due to the weather. But there is one new wrinkle: Children are now allowed to volunteer, which makes the older attendees happy, Frazer said.
Young or old, resident or out-of-towner, the feelings of tradition and camaraderie generated by those first suppers all those years ago seems consistent, as well.
“It’s a community effort,” Calkins said.
Editor’s note: The remaining dinners will be held Feb. 11, 18 and 25, and March 4, from 5-7 p.m., at the Hartland Congregational Church, 10 Station Road. Geoff Hansen can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3247. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3221.