Linn Thornton's 26th annual community dinner was underway on Christmas day.
At 12:15 p.m. the line extended from the serving table at the south end to the entryway. It had been that way since the doors opened at 11 a.m. Thornton said for the most of the first hour, every seat at the tables extending across the hall had been filled.
Thornton was sitting near the entrance in front of a box of toys, giving one to each of the children attending. He accepted the thanks and gifts of money pushed into his hands by people heading out. When word came that some of the food supplies were running low, Thornton rose back into action. He made four runs to the Ramey's Supermarket to restock.
At the rear of the hall, the line of diners worked their way through the serving area, taking away plates loaded with meat, vegetables, potatoes and assorted side dishes. Another table sat across the hall loaded with cakes, pies and cookies. People worked their way to open seats with both hands full.
Beyond the serving line swirled a determined crew of volunteers. In the hallway Eddie Schiska diligently deep fried serving after serving of fish. Pans loaded with freshly cooked meat was carried out from the kitchen where another team stirred and labored over the stove. Greg Davis, who has been Thornton's chief cook for a number of years, got the kitchen crew organized, the stove engaged and the routine started before heading out to catch a flight for the West Coast. Davis was one of many veteran volunteers back to invest time so that the big event would succeed once again.
Several towers of styrofoam containers each packed with a dinner accumulated at the end of a table then went out the door with a delivery crew.
Servers cleared the line waiting for food shortly before 1 p.m. Then the volunteers themselves caught their breath and sat down to eat.
It had been a busy morning. Thornton said he arrived around 4:30 a.m., recalling he had to shovel out the sidewalks the year before.
"The weather was just right," Thornton said. "We had a little snow to look at. I said, 'Lord, thank you.'"
As the morning progressed, the volunteers came. By one estimate twice as many people arrived to help this year and Thornton put them all to work. The extra hands proved valuable in meeting the increased demand for home deliveries.
Thornton figured by the end of the day volunteers had taken 430 meals around Monett and surrounding communities. His wife, Anna, carried 110 south, dropping 30 in Purdy and taking 73 to the Barry County Jail. The jail crew helped carry the food in this year, accepting the meals gratefully.
Meals were taken at Thornton's direction to the guards at all the Monett factories and the employees working at Ramey's on Christmas day.
Thornton estimated around 765 people ate at the hall, one of the largest crowds his event has attracted over the years. This time the food held out, though only the first wave of diners got to sample the wild game and wide variety of meats stockpiled for the occasion.
People had come from Springfield, Seligman, Cassville, Shell Knob, Seligman, Marionville, Granby, Pierce City and Monett, as far as Thornton knew.
"We had representation from all the towns within a 40 or 50 mile radius," Thornton said.
There were return customers, like Leon and Nancy Stephens, who came from Carthage. Nancy had learned of Thornton's dinners when she worked at Monett Meadows apartments a decade ago. They brought Nancy's mother, now a Pierce City resident, to enjoy a Christmas meal together.
There were first-time diners. William Smith, a retired Air Force man, recently moved to Monett from Springfield and had the chance for a family-style Christmas by joining Thornton's gathering.
"There's a great, great camaraderie and civic spirit here," Smith said. "There's a good working attitude toward life in Monett. "For young and old, there was something for everyone. This is a melting pot right here on Broadway."
Before the serving began, Thornton stood before the assembly and thanked everyone for coming. He announced that after 26 years, this would be the last of his Christmas day dinners held at the Legion home. Next year he planned to move the event to the First United Methodist Church, which has a bigger kitchen, area for dining, easier access for the handicapped and better parking. Thornton thanked the Legion for working with him through the years.
Up to the end of the week Thornton had concentrated on distributing toys to needy families. He said 345 families had received help this year, 20 more than in 2009. He gave away the decorations he placed in the hall as well, including his fully decorated and lit Christmas tree.
"We had it for two years. That was long enough," Thornton said. "A family came and packed it all up to take back to their home. When they say, 'This has been the best day of our year,' that makes mine too."
Thornton was quick to acknowledge the additional help he received from Walmart and Casey's in last minute preparations for the dinner. The volunteers made the operation itself run "smooth as silk," he said.
"We were blessed," Thornton concluded, as he pushed one of the mops cleaning up the Legion hall.