Time is nearing for the two annual dinners in Gallia County that not only satisfy visitors’ desire for bean soup, but also continue the observance of a tradition going back more than a century that arose out of a conflict that once tore our nation apart.
Vinton will host its bean dinner, organized by American Legion Post 161 and its auxiliary, on Aug. 5 in Community Park, following the parade that courses through the village starting around 11:30 a.m. The Rio Grande Memorial Association and Bob Evans Farm stage its dinner on Aug. 12 at the BEF Shelterhouse. Both are continuations of similar gatherings that began in the years following the Civil War of 1861-1865, in which Union veterans shared their regular wartime diet of beans, hardtack and coffee, reminisced about their experiences and perhaps reflected on what the conflict represented in the destiny of their reunified country.
Today the beans have been supplanted by soup cooked in traditional cauldrons, along with such later additions as hamburgers and hot dogs. Given the time of the year, coffee is still available, although tubs of ice filled with water and pop are more apparent. And people still come together, more in a spirit of homecoming and catching up than the original conversations centering on the war. The bean dinners have moved beyond their original designations as “campfires” to more of a family and neighbor reunion, but the historical basis for the gatherings hovers over all of them. Many of the dinners were held in Gallia and Meigs communities for decades, but now only Vinton and Rio Grande keep the tradition alive.
Vinton’s initial Grand Army of the Republic campfire is thought to have occurred as early as 1868, but that claim exists only anecdotally because, as historian John Holcomb has pointed out, no documentary evidence exists as support. In fact, the first local newspaper mention of Vinton’s dinner seems to have been in 1883. Rio Grande’s event began in 1870. The Rio Grande dinner has for many years featured a history supplied by educator Bob Leith that helps ground the reason for the event’s existence.
Such traditions also remind us of the area’s involvement in the war, such as the re-creation of the Battle of Buffington Island at Portland from a few weekends ago to the Emancipation Proclamation celebration, continuously observed in Gallia County since 1863. This year’s observance is set for the third weekend in September at BEF. The link to the war is attributable to southern Ohio being subject to the raid of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, whose forces swept through several counties, burned Vinton’s covered bridge over Raccoon Creek to delay pursuing Union troops and met defeat at Buffington Island. Additionally, 1863 saw the creation of West Virginia in support of the North, with campfires reported in Point Pleasant well into the 1890s. Morgan’s Raid is not in all of the literature of the Civil War, such as Bruce Catton’s mammoth studies of the GAR in the 1950s and the war itself in the ’60s, but it happened.
The homecoming aspect of the bean dinners became apparent in the early decades of the 20th Century with fewer survivors of the war able to celebrate with their fellow combatants. Accounts of the bean dinners presented estimates of those folks attending, some running into the thousands who, in one colorful report of Vinton’s event, “made the beans suffer.” The gathering of relatives and friends remained popular but suffered a decline during the World War II years; however, by 1947, with the return of numerous local veterans volunteering their time, local bean dinners were once more in full sway. Bean dinners remain a kind of homecoming today, but the historical event that caused their existence is still a major part of their heritage.
If you’re into the cultural background of the Vinton and Rio Grande bean dinners, or if you just like bean soup and enjoying other folks’ company, give them a try. Some individuals may find other ways to enjoy a summer Saturday outing, but these are well worth your time.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.