In Texas it was called a Turkey Trot, in the mid-west a Turkey Walk, but around here we called it a Turkey Drive. Turkeys were herded to market from the time settlers in America figured out how to round them up from the wild. Before trucks and refrigeration all livestock had to be delivered “on the hoof.” This included turkeys. The reason we associate turkey with Thanksgiving and Christmas – that’s when it stayed cold enough to sell dressed birds locally.Visitors touring the North House Museum can see a framed photograph of a turkey drive. We moved it into the dining room so that everyone can enjoy it. It’s one of the most popular stops on the tour. It was taken in Lewisburg in 1900 looking west at the intersection of Washington Street and Jefferson Street. A few men could manage over 1,000 turkeys. The birds “flock up” naturally. Also a wing would have been clipped to keep them from flying off. These turkeys are being walked the remaining 6 miles to the Swift & Company packing plant in Ronceverte. The railroad will transport the processed turkeys in refrigerated cars to points north and east. Before refrigeration, box cars were filled with cages to deliver the birds alive. These cages were made to be tall enough to allow the turkey to stand upright. Today, their comfort is no longer considered, I’m afraid.
Birds of a Feather
Here’s another great photograph in our collection and one that few folks get to see. It was taken in 1905 in the Spring Creek area, 20-some miles north of Lewisburg. The caption states: 1800 turkeys bought by Pitts-Hanna Mercantile Co. Falling Springs, WV. Delivered to Swift & Company, Ronceverte, WV.
Farmers would either gather the birds from the wild into holding pens or would raise them from chicks stolen from the nests. In the fall buyers would be sent out with scales to weigh each bird before adding it to the drove. Fifty miles was none too far for a drive. Turkeys could be heard coming from far away. All the toms gobbling sounded like some giant terrible machine bearing down until they came into view.
Fuss and Feathers
Fun fact: Sesame Street’s Big Bird is actually covered with white turkey feathers dyed yellow.
We all know the turkey is an American bird, right? But did you know that more than 1,500 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Native Americans had already domesticated turkeys twice? Studies of ancient turkey bone and dung reveal pre-Aztec people around south-central Mexico first domesticated what became known as the Aztec species by 800 B.C. The birds appear to either have been penned or allowed to roam the village like chickens did in early white settlements.
A different species, the southwestern turkey, now believed to be extinct was probably domesticated around 200 B.C. Turkeys were raised by Native Americans for their feathers used in rituals, ceremonies and for creating feathered robes and blankets. Much later, around 1100 A.D., domestic turkeys become an important food source for the Ancestral Puebloans.
The Spanish brought back the Aztec turkey to Spain and it was an instant hit. In 1691 Cardinal Perron observed herders driving turkeys from France to Spain like flocks of sheep. Over the following two centuries, several varieties of turkey were developed in Europe. Believe it or not, in the 18th century, these European turkey breeds were imported back to the United States, where they eventually became the forerunners of the turkeys we eat today.
Goose or Turkey?
In the 18th century turkeys were bred on farms across northern England and marched through the streets of London to butcher shops before Christmas. They were large, black birds the Brits called “bubbly-jocks”. Their feet were dipped in pitch or tied up with sacking made into little booties to protect them on the forced march. Around Greenbrier County I have heard about this dipping of the feet in tar, but can’t make that out in these two photographs at North House. The late Jim Morgan, Sr. of Lewisburg often told that story. Perhaps someone reading this post can weigh in on that subject.
And riddle me this…why did America turn a turkey into a goose in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? The original story has Scrooge asking a boy on Christmas morning if the prize turkey is still in the window of the poulterers. The boy replies, “It is hanging there now,” and Scrooge sends him to buy it for the feast later that day. I guess the goose seemed more exotic.
Then and Now
Turkey farming has always been important in our area and still is. The turkeys at Wilson’s were a usual sight for travelers on 219 West in the middle to late 1900s. Turkeys of America, and now Aviagen, have been doing R & D in Greenbrier County for a long time. I believe we just raise the fertile eggs that get shipped around the world. Now days, turkey farms are long low buildings that glow orange at night. If you get close enough you can hear the racket.