Memorial Day Dinner at the Dexter Presbyterian Church

Since 1970, the last Monday in May has been designated Memorial Day in order to have a three-day holiday “to begin summer.” That change in the date really wiped out a fond institution for the Presbyterian Church in Dexter, even for the whole town.

Traditionally, Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, was observed on May 30 in the United States from 1868 to 1970.

That sacred day is for remembering and honoring those who lost their lives who died serving their country.

Thinking back to the days when it was always on May 30, even families without someone lost during war commemorated that day by visiting their ancestors’ graves, “decorating” them with peonies, iris, and other flowers from their gardens.

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The Dexter Cemetery is on both sides of this road, south of town.

Dozens of people would return to the small town of Dexter, Iowa.

During the 1950s the town’s population was never more than 670 souls. Sometimes Dexter had a cafe, sometimes not. Where would visitors be able to find dinner–at noon in a farming community–without driving to a neighboring town?


The First Presbyterian Church sits right along the highway in Dexter. It has a basement large enough for Father-Son Banquets. A kitchen and, in those days, a large women’s group that met once a month. They decided to offer scalloped chicken dinners, using the proceeds to pay for of the church’s use and for missions. The dinners were usually served with a Jell-o salad, green beans or corn, a roll, and of course–pie.

The women made plans and divvied up the tasks. Their young daughters tended the tables. We girls poured coffee and water, and cleaned up on several of those Memorial Days, while dozens of people had mini-reunions at the tables and up and down the stairs of the church.

Changing the date of Memorial Day, making a three-day weekend instead, put an end to those wonderful scalloped chicken dinners in the basement of the Dexter Presbyterian Church.


Scalloped Chicken

1 quart cooked chicken, cubed

1 ½ quart bread, cubed

1 quart chicken broth

¾ cup melted butter

4 Tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon sage

4 Tablespoons chicken fat

¼ cup chicken broth

¾ teaspoon salt

2 Tablespoons chopped onion

Put layer of chicken in a 9 X 13” baking dish. Make gravy with 1 quart broth, the flour and chicken fat. Lightly mix remaining ingredients with a fork for dressing. Cover the chicken with the dry dressing, then pour gravy evenly over the top. Bake at 350 degrees until browned, about 35 minutes.

Adapted from the Centennial Cookbook by the 20th Century Club, Dexter, Iowa

Found Mom’s recipe:

recipeScalloped (2)

Escalloped Chicken

1 quart coarsely cubed stewed chicken

1 quart broth

4 Tablespoons flour

1 1/2 quart dry bread crumbs, cut in 1/2 inch cubes

1/4 cup cream or chicken stock

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 Tablespoons finely chopped onion

small pinch of sage

Layer chicken on bottom of casserole dish or cake pan. Make gravy with the broth and flour. Toss together bread crumbs, cream or stock, seasonings, and onions. Pour gravy over the top. Bake (350 degrees) until brown on top.


  1. Congratulations on your wedding anniversary! That recipe looks good! When I was a child, there was a parade on Memorial Day and there was a service held outdoors so all of the community could attend. Days gone by, but I remember them well.

    • Both my mother and my grandmother we part of Memorial Day parades when they were girls. Mom said she was part of it three years in a row at Dexter, and Grandma described the one she was in in 1900. Yes, a service at the cemetery, but I guess we were too busy with the dinners to attend that.

  2. I actually don’t have any memories of memorial day celebrations growing up, perhaps a trip to the beach? a bbq in the dunes? But I do remember those great family recipe cards and all the tempting dishes. Wonderful post – love the old church 🙂

  3. Happy anniversary, Joy! I wonder why the change to the Monday holiday put an end to the tradition. Did people just decide they had better things to do with a 3-day weekend?

    • They’d have to decide what day to hold the dinner, Saturday or Monday, then hope that everybody came to leave flowers at the Dexter cemetery the day they had food ready. Knowing that it was always the 30th made it easy.

  4. It sure feels like those small town days are gone forever. The church dinner is pure Americana! I remember them well. Ours in northern Vermont and New Hampshire always included very, very dark and very, very sweet baked beans. My mother frowned upon them.

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