Cocalico Corner: Constructing a sweet holiday tradition in Adamstown

By on December 7, 2016
It’s a table full of gingerbread houses and family members on Thanksgiving Day at the Wetherholds.  Photo courtesy Mike and Donna Wetherhold

It’s a table full of gingerbread houses and family members on Thanksgiving Day at the Wetherholds. Photo courtesy Mike and Donna Wetherhold

When it comes to compiling the best ingredients for a Thanksgiving gathering, there are likely few folks in Cocalico who can compete with the efforts of Donna and Mike Wetherhold of Adamstown.

This spirited couple, both Cocalico High School graduates and now retired, turns the tables twice on their children, grandchildren, and in-laws on Thanksgiving Day.

First there’s the meal, traditional and hearty as is the norm in most Pennsylvania Dutch households.

But, unlike many folks who take to the nearest couch for a post-dinner football siesta, the guests at the Wetherhold gathering get right to work at cleaning up the dishes and clearing off the tabletop.

Why?

It’s not to make way immediately for the scrumptious desserts. Everyone wants to get down to the business of home design and construction, gingerbread style.

For most of the past decade, designing and building unique gingerbread houses has been the trademark activity of the Wetherhold turkey day celebration.

“This is something they can do together,” said Donna.

“It’s a nice family thing and gets them all out from under my feet while we’re cleaning up,” she laughs.

Donna loves that while she settles things in her kitchen, she can look into the spacious sunroom/dining room and see her kids and their partners, grandchildren, and extended family sharing stories, chuckles, and offering each other advice on how to make the best possible gingerbread house.

Mike, claiming one of a pair of wing-backed chairs, serves as on-site supervisor as daughter Mary Wishneski, 50, and son Mike Jr., 48, work as intently as their six grandchildren: Molly Conrad, 27; Jack Wishneski, 22; Cecilia Wishneski, 18, Jack Wishneski, 16; Ally Wetherhold, 14, and Livvy Wetherhold, 10.

Despite the variety of ages from the oldest to youngest grandchild, the collective activity has proven to create a bond that only strengthens through the years.

“It’s teamwork; there’s such an age span, but everyone seems to get into it,” said Donna.

“It’s neat to see a 10-year-old and a 70-year-old working together,” Mike said.

He loves the “general chit chat” that occurs as the family members work their designs and share stories.

The couple, incredibly youthful septuagenarians themselves, in the days before Thanksgiving make sure the construction components are ready.

On Monday, the couple bakes all the gingerbread.

They combine the ingredients, make the dough, and roll it out.

When it is rolled out, Mike takes the templates they’ve created for the walls and roofs and cuts the shapes out of the dough. Those pieces are then placed on cookie sheets for baking. What Mike calls the “off cuts” or odds and ends are also baked and set to the side. These bits are used creatively in the design process. In fact, this year, Ally added a deck to her gingerbread house using one of the odd pieces.

Both said the lines of the templates have become cleaner and straighter over the years.

“The first year we made then, some looked like haunted houses,” she said.

“Tuesday we do the assembly so that everyone gets a little house.”

The couple mixes up the Royal frosting which is used to assemble the houses.

“That frosting is like cement,” Mike said.

He estimates the baking and assembly processes take about three to four hours each.

At the end of it all, the couple has produced about a dozen houses, one for each Thanksgiving diner.

And there is that $40-plus of assorted candies, marshmallows, and pretzel sticks that will serve as the colorful and yummy decorations that must be at the ready.

The process is considerably more involved than it was years ago.

“When the (older) grandchildren were little, we did this with graham crackers,” Donna recalls.

But about eight years ago, she was inspired to take it up a notch after attending a meeting of the former Woman’s Club of Adamstown.

Club member Joan Reinecker and her daughter-in-law came to a meeting with all the ingredients needed to create the more elaborate gingerbread houses, replete with the recipe reproduced in the accompanying sidebar to this column.

“When the oldest (Molly) was in college and when Livy was only about 2, we ramped it up,” she said.

“Every year we ask the kids: Do you want to do this again?” Donna said. There are no ‘nos.’

Indeed, their grandchildren treasure the tradition the Wetherholds have created.

“One of the reasons this tradition is so cherished is because how much joy it brings everyone involved,” said Molly, a teacher in the Solanco School District.

“We revel in the opportunity to create something innovative and unique each year — even something as seemingly simple as candied houses — and it’s so rewarding to see how much joy our creations bring my grandparents. Each year, everyone — big, small, young, old — looks forward to making the houses.’

Cousin Cecilia Wishneski agrees.

“Every year, I look forward to making gingerbread houses after Thanksgiving dinner more than I look forward to the actual dinner!” said Cecilia.

“It’s sort of like the official beginning of the Christmas season for me. All of my siblings, cousins, and even some of the parents are all sitting around a big table decorating houses.

“Some of us take the decorating seriously and some don’t, but regardless, we are all laughing and enjoying each other’s company. It’s my favorite holiday tradition.”

At the end of the day, everyone gets to take his or her gingerbread home for the Christmas holiday.

Mike and Donna say they are in the gingerbread house construction business for the long haul. They expect this year’s Thanksgiving gathering of 17 to grow as more of the grandkids become adults and have partners of their own.

Mike, an Adamstown Borough councilman and treasurer of the Adamstown Area Library board of trustees, would like to offer a program on the gingerbread houses with Donna when the library moves to a new facility on Main Street in 2017.

Donna jokes about the “stress” the gingerbread house project invokes on her and Mike, who built their lovely Dutch Colonial-style home on a quiet suburban street in 1973.

“I’ve always said there should be a test before people get married — they should have to wallpaper a room together and take a road trip with two kids under the age of four,” she said. “Now, I’d add to that, baking gingerbread!”

Here’s a delicious Gingerbread Recipe.

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