Now in its 103rd year, Turkey Bingo enjoys the status of being the Santa Ynez Valley’s longest continually running community event. It’s billed as a family fun/fundraising evening with deep roots.
In 1913, a group of 21 industrious Danes, all members of Solvang’s Hejls Minde #23 of the Danish Society of Dania of California and Nevada, embarked on a fundraising campaign to construct a place for their meetings.
According to a history of the Lodge compiled by “Slim” Larsen, their goal was met and Dania Hall became a reality that same year. Construction costs totaled $1,000 and the hall was built on land donated by Jacob Svendsen, who also made the concrete blocks for the structure that stood at Copenhagen Drive and Atterdag Road.
Solid and completely functional, Dania Hall quickly became a meeting place and the center for most of Solvang’s social events, group meetings, forums, bazaars, parties and dances.
In 1914, Danish Society members came up with Turkey Bingo as a way to bolster the treasury and provide funds for ongoing expenses. In the beginning there were live turkeys, geese and ducks, restrained in burlap sacks down in the basement and all very noisy. Larsen’s historical account doesn’t mention when they switched to frozen birds, only that the time had come.
“Very few knew how to take care of the live birds they had won,” he noted.
It was decided that bingo would be played for a dime a card. Players could play as many cards as they liked, but in those days, 10 cents was a generous donation.
Perhaps an early example of “if you build it they will come,” Turkey Bingo at Dania Hall quickly became an annual event and a harbinger of the holiday season.
Game outlives hall
Dania Hall was torn down in 1974 to make room for a restaurant and shops, but Turkey Bingo survives to this day.
In 1937, wives of Dania men formed the Danish Ladies Society Dannebrog of Dania as Haabet #19 and eventually took over operation of the annual event.
In the late ’80s, Turkey Bingo came under the auspices of Alpha Pi, a local philanthropic group with many members who are daughters and/or granddaughters of Dania men and women.
Although the torch was passed, Alpha Pi carried on the Turkey Bingo tradition without missing a beat.
Some members still recall the days when there were live birds. Winners would go down rickety basement stairs, make their selection and stash their prize under tables upstairs.
“Those birds were more than a little upset,” Kathy Kelsey said. “They would peck at our feet for the rest of the night.”
Remembering the older games, Kelsey said when the basement door opened there would be a cacophony of distress, “loud enough to drown out the Bingo caller.”
Today’s games are still played for one thin dime a card.
“We’ve worked hard to keep the price the same,” noted Pam Johnsen, Alpha Pi president. “It gets a little tougher each year. As with everything else, expenses have climbed — turkeys and hall rental, to name a couple, but we believe that the ‘one dime’ price per card is a legacy worth continuing.”
Kids often show up with baggies of dimes they’ve saved during the year.
“It’s usually a sellout crowd,” Johnsen said. “With 60 turkeys and a door prize to award, it can be a long evening.”
The coveted door prize is a basket filled with all the makings for a festive Thanksgiving dinner — including a turkey. Refreshments, run by the Buellton Senior Citizens, include snacks and drinks of all kinds and are available throughout the evening.
“Aside from providing early holiday fun and excitement, the more important aspect is what we do with the monies we raise,” Alpha Pi’s Johnsen said.
Alpha Pi members take pride in charitable giving, the focus of today’s Turkey Bingo. Funds have been used to provide hearing aid batteries for senior citizens, and assistance to high school kids needing help with graduation expenses and sports equipment.
Alpha Pi members create gift packets, which they give to residents of Atterdag Village Recovery Residence on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. They also provide gasoline cards for people driving to medical appointments or treatment, as well as grocery cards.
Once a year, Alpha Pi also hosts dinners at the Solvang and Buellton senior centers. They contribute to the annual veterans’ Stand Down event in Santa Maria and the Valley’s Support the Troops efforts. The group has built wheelchair ramps at residences, paid for kitchen appliances to be repaired, sponsored families at Christmas and other holidays.
“We’ve helped people get on their feet and over tight spots,” Johnsen said. “We do it quickly, no red tape, just a quorum decision — mostly small donations, but often just enough to help someone in a tough situation.
“Who knows, you just might go home with a turkey or two,” she continued. “It’s a guaranteed feel-good evening.”