BRATTLEBORO -- It's been 10 years since organizers behind Brattleboro's traditional free Thanksgiving Day feast were scrambling to find a place to serve the meal.

After more than 30 years of preparing and serving the food at the Common Ground, the restaurant on Elliot Street finally closed down and the volunteers who work to prepare and serve the Thanksgiving Day meal had to find another location in town.

Ray Branagan at the time was doing maintenance work at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street.

He had a key for the building, figured it was good central location, and convinced the rest of the organizers to give it a shot, even though there were no real cooking facilities there.

Ten years later, organizers are preparing once more to serve hundreds of meals from the River Garden.

"I always thought the River Garden was the center of town. It's got a bathroom. It used to have a sink, and there is a great view of the river," Branagan said. "This is a long time tradition that goes back to the '70s and we weren't going to let it go away just because the Common Ground closed."

A free Thanksgiving meal, including turkey, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, will be served Thursday, from noon to 5 p.m. at the River Garden at 157 Main St.

With just a day to go before the big meal, the group has all of the food and volunteers it needs, and at this point Branagan says anyone who is looking for a place to share a holiday meal with dozens of new friends should just come down to the River Garden and enjoy the day.

Last year the group served more than 600 meals, including more than 100 that were delivered to people who could not get out.

Thousands of dollars worth of food was donated and hundreds of people volunteered a portion of their holiday to make it all happen.

The annual free Thanksgiving Day feast takes a lot of work and only happens through the hundreds of volunteer hours used to collect, prepare, cook, serve and clean up the food.

But there is also plenty of magic involved.

Volunteers serve food prepared for the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in Brattleboro. (Reformer file photo)
Volunteers serve food prepared for the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in Brattleboro. (Reformer file photo)

The organizers are loosely affiliated.

They have no over riding non-profit group, do little advertising, and do not have a fundraising event to help bring in money.

The group does not even send out letters to the donors.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving Branagan makes some calls, including many to farmers, merchants and individuals who have been donating for more than three decades.

And in the days leading up to Thanksgiving the food starts rolling in.

Last year the group got about 40 turkeys which were cooked in ovens all over Brattleboro.

"People have been doing this for so long they expect to take part in it," Branagan said. "We just seem to pull it off every year."

Last year a makeshift smoker was set up in front of the First Baptist Church on Main Street and pigs were cooked outside all day.

Through the years the main cooking site has been located at a number of different places around town.

A few years ago organizers tried out the Masonic Temple on Main Street, which is where they will be again this year.

Volunteers also prepare food at home, or prepare extra food during their own holiday, and all day platters and bowls show up at the River Garden.

Volunteers start at about 1 p.m. on Wednesday and work until the final potato has been mashed.

Early Thursday people start setting up the River Garden, moving food in and by noon they are ready to go.

Branagan said it is a bit of a challenge to organize all of the food, as dozens of turkeys that have been cooked in ovens all over town show up, along with the pies, cranberry sauce and vegetables.

"We had times when it wasn't all perfect; when we had turkey, and no gravy, or gravy, and no turkey," said Branagan. "But it usually works out no matter what."

On Tuesday afternoon Branagan was rushing out to pick up turkeys from Vermont Deli and six bushels of beets from a local farm.

He said when the hundreds of people are coming in and out of the River Garden, when the volunteers are cooking and serving and cleaning, and people are sitting down to their meal, for those few hours everyone who shows up is there together, sharing a meal and a tradition.

"It's community. It's what Brattleboro is all about," Branagan said. "Every year it just gets better and better. Last year I said it was the best year ever, and maybe that is what I will be saying again on Friday."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.