‘A show of community’: Hundreds to gather for potluck dinner in Snowmass

Chey Cooper, left, and Candy and Matt Huffman dig into their feast at the 2014 John Bemis Community Potluck Dinner.
File photo/Snowmass Sun


On Sunday, the Westin Snowmass Conference Center will host the annual John Bemis Community Potluck Dinner. As tradition holds, the dinner’s turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing will be provided, but attendees are asked to prepare side dishes dependent on the letter their last name begins with:

• A through H: Bring a salad

• I through P: Bring a side dish

• Q through Z: Bring a dessert

Potluck dishes will be submitted into “Best in Category” competitions, with the winners taking home $50, if dropped off to the conference center by 5:30 p.m. Nov. 24. If locals do not wish to be entered in the contest, they can just add their dish to the buffet line.

The potluck Thanksgiving welcome and blessing will begin at 6:15 p.m., and the buffet begins at 6:30 p.m.

From a small, roughly 50-person tradition that started in the original Snowmass Chapel building in the late 1980s to the more than 600-people, multi-sponsored event it is today, there’s just something about the annual John Bemis Community Potluck Dinner held the Sunday before Thanksgiving that keeps people coming back, year after year.

“A lot of people who come wouldn’t miss it,” said Joan “the church lady” Bemis, a longtime Snowmass resident, potluck organizer and member of the Snowmass Chapel congregation. “They’ll miss a lot of other stuff but there’s something about it, … a special feeling you have when seeing someone there that maybe you don’t have when seeing them at the Wal-Mart.”

On a recent afternoon in the Snowmass Chapel, Bemis and Julie Ressler, potluck committee member and administrative director for the chapel, looked back on the history of the Thanksgiving potlucks started out of the chapel’s small kitchen soon after it was dedicated in 1988.

As they paged through old Snowmass Sun articles on the potluck and Polaroids of families still rooted in the village, the women talked about how the gathering exemplifies the town’s tight-knit community and has always been a way to welcome newcomers.

“The core people who have lived here year-round were part of this community from the beginning and helped build this town, this chapel and the potluck,” Ressler said.

“These are the people who invite those working here who may have never been here before to the potluck and all of a sudden have a whole group of friendly faces to say welcome to Snowmass Village.”

But the future of the annual community potluck wasn’t always certain. According to Ressler and Bemis, chapel leaders almost canceled the Thanksgiving event around 2008 because they couldn’t handle its growth.

That’s when Joan said her late husband, John Bemis, stepped in.

“My husband came home furious one evening and said there wasn’t going to be a potluck, somewhere along the way it got bigger than the chapel could deal with,” Joan said. “He decided that we just could not abandon the community, that the potluck was too important.”

With John and several other locals’ help, the annual potluck was moved from the chapel to the then-Silver Tree Conference Center in 2008, Joan recalled.

About one year later, John was placed in hospice care as the result of a rare, incurable neurological disease, and attended his last potluck in person after being transported to the dinner by Snowmass fire officials. He died in 2012 and the potluck has been named after him ever since.

“It makes me cry to think about it. It was tough but it was such a show of community to do that for him,” Joan said of the last year John made it to the potluck.

For Markey Butler, town mayor and potluck committee member, John’s passion for continuing the annual community dinner is one of the main reasons she’s still heavily involved in organizing it.

Butler said she remembers how when the gathering outgrew the Snowmass Chapel, John first had his sights on the town recreation center’s gym, using a large piece of cardboard and quarters to map out how to space enough circular, eight-top tables to fit 400 people.

When John couldn’t secure the rec center, he set his sights on the Silver Tree, Butler said, which is now the Westin Snowmass Conference Center.

“He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Butler said of John’s determination to continue the potluck. “He took a great deal of pride and ownership to keep the potluck going.”

Although many of the people who attend the potluck today may not have known John personally, Butler said she hopes they will get a glimpse of his spirit through the photos of him and many other longtime potluck organizers set to be displayed at this year’s dinner.

“Everyone loved and respected John,” Butler said. “When people leave, I hope they’ll be touched by one of the fathers of this community who helped enable and promote its spirit that’s still palpable albeit all of the growth we’re seeing.”

This year, Butler said the potluck committee expects well over 600 people to attend Sunday’s dinner at the Westin Snowmass Conference Center, and it has had a banner fundraising year with a handful of new and veteran donors pitching in to support it.

But while the numbers keep growing and the side dish, salad and dessert contests grow more competitive, the display of community and unity is what many locals kept coming back to as what sets the Thanksgiving potluck a part from other longtime, annual village events.

Former mayor and resident Bill Boineau said he’s never seen a community event like it anywhere else, and sees it as what differentiates Snowmass from other similar-sized towns.

Nancy Ferguson said her and her husband, Cory, have never missed a potluck, describing it as a collaborative meal that creates a sense of belonging and reminds locals how lucky they are to live in Snowmass.

Travis Elliott, a relatively new Snowmass resident and assistant town manager, said it helped him feel welcomed into the village and was a cool way to break bread with some of the longtime locals.

Joan Bemis said she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

“Snowmass Village has always been determined to not just be the tag end of a ski area. … We are all neighbors whether we live at the top of Faraway Road or the top of Horse Ranch Drive,” Joan said. “I hope we don’t ever lose our sense of neighborhood.”