When Melissa Taylor opened the doors of the Solon Springs Community Center 10 years ago, she started a tradition of giving, complete with turkey, gravy and an extra helping of sweet potatoes.
Each year, the Solon Springs woman spends days shopping, preparing and serving a Thanksgiving feast to anyone who walks through the door. The dinner starts at 11 a.m. Although cooking stops at 12:30 p.m., the center remains open until people stop coming.
The Solon Cares Thanksgiving Dinner has been tweaked and streamlined over the years. Instead of peeling potatoes, for instance, Taylor opts for boxed spuds.
But one thing hasn't changed. The free Thanksgiving dinner is a show of community support and caring.
"It's open to anyone for whatever reason," Taylor said. "If you have a reason to come and eat, come and eat."
Initially launched to provide a holiday meal for elderly in the community, the dinner draws a diverse crowd. They come from throughout the area — Superior, Gordon, Maple, Minong.
"I've had babies who aren't even big enough to eat food yet," Taylor said. "I've had all ages and all financial backgrounds. I've had homeless, I've had wealthy. They just come."
Participants may have no family nearby, or no way to cook a dinner themselves. Some are seeking social interaction. One year, a family dropped by after their vehicle broke down.
Doug Nagle, president of the Solon Springs Lions Club, called the annual meal "fantastic." Nagle himself cooks up one of the turkeys for Taylor, minus his family's traditional oyster stuffing. The Solon Cares dinner is something Taylor does without asking for thanks, Nagle said.
She gets it anyway.
"The biggest and warmest part of the dinner for me has always been, and still is, watching all these people from different walks of life literally sit down together and talk and eat," Taylor said. "There's a reason I don't put out all the tables and chairs ... you see laughing. You see handshaking when they part."
So she cooks up 125 pounds of turkey (minus Nagle's bird), one case of stuffing, 50 pounds of sweet potatoes (80 this year), 18 pounds of canned corn and more every year.
It's a community effort, Taylor said. A man she knows only as "Dean the stuffing guy" leaves her a case of stuffing at the grocery store.
"I've never met him, as far as I know," Taylor said.
The Lions Club provides $200 every year, and Mertz-Rookey Insurance chips in $100. Additional monetary donations came from Solon Auto, First Presbyterian Church Presbyterian Women, Tom and Pat Higgins, and "Patty." Superior's Super One Foods stores provided four turkeys and a $100 gift card; the Village Pump is donating drinks, Franny K's Country Foods in Solon Springs donated a turkey and the St. Croix Inn is providing napkins.
Solon Springs Elementary School students create the centerpieces every year. Volunteers help serve the dinner.
"I couldn't do it without each one of them," Taylor said as she packed turkeys, aluminum pans and juice boxes into her car Thursday in the parking lot of Harborview Super One Foods. "Even the napkins, that's $5 or more I didn't have to come up with, that I had for something else. It makes a difference."
Although she usually feeds about 100, this year could be one for the record books. Attendance fluctuates annually depending on when the Packers game kick off.
"I'm expecting a crowd this year and the reason is there's no Packer game," Taylor said.
Not all of the food is consumed on site.
"You can tell when somebody needs an extra boost and we give them to-go boxes," Taylor said. "We take care of who we can."
Any leftovers are packed up and sent to Solid Rock Mission, one of the few places that accepts already-prepared food. That's another emotional moment for Taylor.
"I've had grown men come out to unload the car with tears running down their face," Taylor said.
When she started the Solon Cares Thanksgiving Dinner, her youngest son was 9. He's in college with a life of his own, but Taylor expects him to join her this week for their community feast.
"He said he's coming," she said. "We'll see. I'm counting on him to take the leftovers to Superior."
She encouraged anyone to stop by the meal, and to spread the word that Solon cares.