Just as I warned myself, Thanksgiving turned into a writing opportunity. My family’s hometown chatter around the turkey platter focused on an upcoming celebration in my teeny-tiny hometown of Morganville, Kansas. With a population of fewer than 300, which includes all dogs, cats, and gerbils, big to-dos don’t happen often. But, the scant population is gearing up for a spectacle on December 29.
This is what happened: Sixty-some years ago, an enthuiastic Morganville Methodist minister challenged the community to think bigger than itself. He and one of Morganville’s forward-thinking matrons generated enough interest that the town adopted a small hamlet in northeastern France, called Feves. Seventy-five percent of the Feves’s community had been destroyed “by our boys during World War II” as one committee member stated. The basics of shelter, food, and clothing were nearly nonexistent. They questioned their strength to reinvent themselves and move on when Morganville said they would help.
August 27, 1948, Morganville residents blocked off downtown streets and draped foreign flags around an outdoor amphitheater. More than 2,000 people from east central Kansas gathered to support the rebuilding of Feves. A pageant, conceived, written, rehearsed, and ready for performance in fifteen days, began with the high school orchestra playing a rousing overture. Actors recreated vignettes of Morganville’s history and stole the amphitheater’s center stage while an old ex-cavalry horse provided rides for children around the city square. More than one-hundred-fifty actors and dancers presented international scenes, tributes to the new sister city, and memories of Morganville’s beginnings.
Around the perimeter, revenue was collected from bingo games, penny-pitching, the sale of forty gallons of homemade ice cream and dozens of cookies made from German, French, Swedish, and Norwegian recipes. The money, dropped into old cream cans, became milk rations for Feves’s babies. Morganville mothers placed baby clothes in one can and stout shoes for Feves’s adults in another. Community women made wooolen comforter-squares out of old pants and repaired old clothing to be sent.
“Upon receipt of your boxes,” Feves’s Catholic priest wrote, “we sounded the horn and called everyone to a party. Joy was intense. Since it was the Christmas season, we had St. Nicholas distribute candy to the children, and the mayor handed out the rest.”
Morganville’s Christmas was festive too, in honor of the Feves’s project. A First Noel Ball with evening dressess or gowns made of feed sacks to honor the poor of Feves became party costumes. People danced, put on a floor show, and read letters from Feves. During a grand march, attendees decorated a Christmas tree with dollar bills for an ongoing Feves milk fund. Letters from Feves were read. One receipient wrote, “The parcel arrived just in time. We’re two old people, living in a wooden shack. In summer, we almost suffocate. In winter, we freeze. One of our two boys died in a concentration camp as did our daughter’s husband. Please accept our sincere friendship.”
Newspapers and radio stations across the nation broadcast the story of Morganville and Feves. Elmore McKee, Yale University's first chaplain, wrote a book about the effort, The People Act. When Milton Eisenhower, brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower and one who believed in people-to-people arrangements, learned about the Morganville-Feves connection, he influenced his brother, then president, to create Sister Cities International in 1956. Morganville was the first, and to this day, is still the smallest sister city.
December 29, 2013, Morganville will host a reception for Feves’s guests, the 1948 schoolmaster’s nephew and family. Memorabilia will be on display; actors from the pageant will be in attendance. Memories will be shared and retold. I will be there, asking questions and taking notes. Thanks for Thanksgiving conversations, this may turn into an article for a children’s magazine,