Local couple roast chestnuts at Sleighbell Parade for past 26 years

MANISTEE — It didn’t take Kendra and Mike Thompson long to realize there was something special about the Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend.

Mike and Kendra Thompson have been roasting chestnuts at the Victorian Sleighbell Parade for 26 years.

Mike and Kendra Thompson have been roasting chestnuts at the Victorian Sleighbell Parade for 26 years.

Thompson who is a local architect, said she and her husband were intrigued by the concept right from the beginning of the event in 1989.

What they also realized was they wanted to do something special to be a part of it both then and for the future.

Kendra chuckles at the memory of it now and says they finally settled on roasting chestnuts for the second Sleighbell Parade back in 1990. But she said they never expected making it their signature event for the past 26 years.

“Back in 1990 the parade was an event of the Uniqueness Committee,” said Thompson.  “I was very active in that committee in my circle of friends and it was just natural to want to be a part of it. The Sleighbell Parade originally was started as a local event and now has become as a Midwest event.”

Thompson said the focus of the Uniqueness Committee a part of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce at that time was to promote the natural and historic resources of the community. Every Sleighbell Parade event was designed to be a part of that unique experience or taking a step back in time.

“My husband and I got looked at by the other committee members back then and asked why don’t you guys roast some chestnuts?” said Thompson. “The rest is history. The first few years the chestnut roasting was sponsored by the Uniqueness Committee, but for years now it has been sponsored by my firm, Kendra Thompson Architects.”

However, what started that first year and still carries on to this day is the four locations of the chestnut roasting grills. It is a tradition that Thompson said continues because many visitors look for the grills in those locations.

“We always do the one on the corner of River and Maple streets, then in front of The Outpost, River Street Station and in front of Dr. Gardin’s office,” said Thompson. “It seems to work well that way as there are two on the north side of River Street and two on the south side and they are staggered.”

But Thompson smiles at the memory of that first year as they came in not really knowing what goes into roasting chestnuts. However, with 26 years of experience under their belts they have become very knowledgeable about the subject.

“I don’t really remember how that first year started if Sleighbell organizers (the late) Jerry Smith and Amanda Pinkerton ordered chestnuts or what,” said Thompson.

However, they became a quick study in learning how to roast them and what were the best chestnuts  to roast.

“In the early years we would get them through Oleson grocery store and they were an Italian chestnut,” said Thompson. “You can go to the grocery stores throughout the holiday season to find them. They are bigger, but not as flavorful.”

Thompson laughed saying she never thought in her lifetime she would become a chestnut connoisseur.

“We used those for about five years before a gentleman named Bruce Smith from Grant who ran a chestnut farm called Angling Farms approached us,” said Thompson.  “We have become quite good friends with him and his wife and have been getting our chestnuts from them.”

Smith grows a Chinese Chestnut that is a little smaller in size than the Italian ones and much sweeter. He sells the Thompsons about 200 hundred pounds every year. She said Port City Organics also sells the same brand they use every year.

“When the Budweiser Clydesdales were here we ordered about 50 extra pounds because we knew the crowds would be larger,” she said.

Preparing them to grill entails a very simple process, and Thompson pointed out they can actually be eaten raw.

“We have to put a little split in each chestnut or they will explode,” she said. “Sometimes they will still pop on the grill, but that is all you have to do with them and in a few minutes they are ready.”

What also happened was the chestnut roasting quickly caught on with all of Thompson’s friends. Many of them have been doing it right along with them for many years.

“I have friends from back in college, Phil Hill and Perry Sauter who people think they are from Manistee because they come and roast chestnuts every year at The Outpost location,” said Thompson. “This is a big event for them every year and everyone knows them.”

She said  there have been several different people who have manned the other locations over the years.

“Roger and Karen Bruchan were pretty regular and now my brother and sister-in-law plug into where they are as will my son. Karen and Roger Asiala have done it for several years as did Jan and Bob Kenny,” she said.

Thompson said in the early years they had to find grills to use with the chestnuts. The Manistee Elks Lodge offered up the use of their grill and Solberg’s Boatyard had some as did the American Legion.

“At one point everyone just kind of said they could keep them,” said Thompson. “What also helped was the City of Manistee Department of Public Works took over keeping them and putting them out every year.”

What she also finds unique about doing it for so many years is the faces that they see every year. Some of them started coming as little kids and now they bring their own children.

“I don’t know all their names or where they live, but they come to town just for this event,” said Thompson. “They recognize me and my husband, and they come to get their chestnuts for that year. The smell of the chestnuts, the aroma and everyone milling around them just adds to the excitement.”

Thompson said those reactions are the payback for doing it every year. They purchase all the chestnuts on their own as a gift to the event and the people.

“We are just happy the people are here and enjoying the community,” she said.

Thompson said one of the many interesting things is the weather they have encountered over the years. It has been a mixture of freezing cold blizzards to mild almost fall-like nights. The one thing that is obvious is they never really know until a few days prior to the event.

“I have worn the same outfit for all these years which includes a hoop skirt,” laughed Thompson. “One year it was snowing so hard and there were ruts of snow in the road and I fell over and couldn’t get back up with the hoop skirt. I had to have a couple people help me up.”

However, she said they still love it regardless of what Mother Nature may toss at them that night.

One thing she said that hasn’t changed is the spirit of the people who have worked on the parade and Old Christmas Weekend. It is positive and upbeat and shows the community in a very good light.

This year they plan to be back at it for another year. Thompson said she, her husband and friends and family want the chestnut tradition to continue for many years to come.

It’s a giving spirit and community pride all rolled into one. That is what the Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend is and has always been about.



Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

Leave a Reply