Editor’s note: This article is the first in an occasional series of stories to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the founding of Shenandoah County.

WOODSTOCK — Since it was named a holiday in 1863, Thanksgiving — that one autumn day when Americans come together to celebrate all things for which they are thankful — has changed from the day when families leisurely gathered to celebrate their thankfulness to a weekend of hectic Black Friday shopping and the advent of the buying season.

But 77-year-old William “Billy” Bushong, a familiar FFA, 4-H, Shenandoah County Fair, Virginia Farm Bureau, and agricultural Shenandoah County name, embraces the old Thanksgiving — a Shenandoah County traditional family feast to celebrate “all things. Not material things but family, get all the family around,” he said, explaining that was the goal when he was a boy growing up in the Woodstock area and that remains the goal now that he is family patriarch: Thanksgiving is a time when Bushong prepares a large family meal with his wife Dolores. “Ah, I like to cook,” he admits proudly.

And just like in the past — the dinner event takes place around the farm and the duties associated with farm life — what Bushong sees and embraces as the county’s spine.

Even though Thanksgiving is different from 70 years ago, Bushong still remembers the past Thanksgiving weekends when stores — even gas stations — were closed. He said this encouraged the family to be together.

Bushong remembers his parents’ Thanksgiving visit to the IGA in Woodstock, but the highlight was the McNess truck’s arrival. The delivery trucks went door-to-door in Shenandoah County, arriving once a month to waiting customers, especially at Thanksgiving.

“It [McNess] had all kinds of stuff,” he said, mentioning household items like salt, sugar, yeast, pepper, and medicines.

But Bushong’s face shines with one happy memory — the truck’s greatest treat for any young boy was the “pop. My folks always got us a pop.” The colas and root beers were 5 cents each, “but that was the biggest thing,” Bushong said, remembering the satisfaction of having his own drink. “That’s the only time we ever got a pop. The only time.”

When Thanksgiving came, cooking would begin early with the usual turkey and stuffing matched with potatoes and sauerkraut. “It was the whole works,” said Bushong, explaining the meal would be served in the evening after farm chores. “There is always work to do on the farm. When you get finished, something always happens — a cow gets out or something. Then you are at it again.”

Bushong said it was a good thing stores were closed for no one had time for shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend, which dawned with colder fall mornings, the ideal time for butchering. “Well, it still is [the time for butchering] for a lot of us,” said Bushong. He is proud of his small smokehouse near his home, a wooden structure where jerky, sausages, and hams are cured — using the same recipe his mother used before him.

The hard work of butchering would begin as the sun came up. “That was a big, big day — bigger than Christmas,” he said, laughing and remembering the time with family — the children working alongside the adults. Even the youngest of children had duties because, Bushong said, “butchering” was a celebration even if there was work involved.

“You had to get it done,” cutting and preparing the meat before the autumn sun faded to early darkness, he said.

Most importantly, “we would get out of school. That was the best part — no school,” he said for even years ago, children loved a break from school.

He said this was followed by a Sunday where people visited with neighbors. “Go to church, come home, and just visit. Talk. Sit around for a while,” he said, shaking his head and remembering his neighbors along his road.

“I know we need a computer, but a computer can’t do everything. We really do need to rely on people more,” he said, adding that those simple Sunday visits are a Shenandoah County thing of the past — a forgotten. Bushong is not regretful but rather an optimistic man with a quick laugh who admits he’s blatantly honest. “We got so much to be thankful for.”

“You know the saying: Time flies. It’s true,” he said, putting on his familiar cowboy hat. “I don’t want to turn back time. I want to make [the future] time better. We really have lived in the best of times, but changes come. We need to be thankful for all the good we do have and all the good we will have.”

Even though farming life is long and arduous, Bushong said there is nothing he would change about the progression of his life, or the work involved. “We got the mountains, the valleys, the cold, and the hot. We got it all,” he said.

Agriculture remains an indisputable aspect of Shenandoah County’s history and a foundational piece of its future, with acreage spanning hundreds of acres or 3-to-5-acre farmettes. The funny thing is that the definition of farmette suggests that only those with 3-to 5-acre personal farms are the farms where the agricultural managers have another income to support their farming “habit,” a descriptor Bushong uses for the farm occupation.

“It [farming] gets in your blood. You can’t get it out,” Bushong laughs as he describes his own ‘habit,’ usually beginning at 5 a.m. and lasting until after sunset. But just to set the record straight, he admits that “there is hardly a farmer out there, never has been and not around here, who can make it [financially] just farming. We [farmers] always have another job. When I was a boy, we picked up apples to sell them. We had to have something.”

Bushong should know about farming — not only in the county but across the nation. In addition to the fact that he has been farming, like his father before him, for more than seven decades in Shenandoah County, he was a national face for more than 40 years in the realm of crop insurance — from writing policy to representing cases in Congress to investigating fraud from California to Maine. That full-time employment supported his full-time business on the farm — cattle, corn, soybean, and barley.

“There’s an energy [to farming],” he said. “It’s a free way of life that you are never free of.”

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