When The Turkeys Walked

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In June, 1863, George Bruffey and his partner, a Mr. Hurd, were following the trail along the South Platte in northeastern Colorado, on their way to the gold-rich young boom town of Denver. Not far from their destination, they witnessed a peculiar sight that impressed them as much as any buffaloes, antelopes, or Indians they had so far encountered. This was a man driving a flock of five hundred turkeys.

Upon inquiring, Bruffey discovered that the drover had bought the birds in Iowa and Missouri; from there to Denver he had undertaken an epic trail drive of well over six hundred miles with some of the most temperamental birds of this hemisphere. The outfit consisted of the owner, a wagon loaded with shelled corn and drawn by six horses and mules, the turkeys, and two boy drovers who had walked all the way. When the wind was behind them, the turkey man said, they could make twenty-five miles a day. When it was against them, they had their troubles. Mostly the birds lived off the country, devouring hordes of grasshoppers. Where feed was scarce, shelled corn was thrown to them from the wagon. They fattened as they went.

Denver was a hungry town then. Horace Greeley, visiting it in 1859, reported that everybody ate pork, hot bread, beans, and coffee three times a day, day after day, except when an ox well-toughened by a fifty-day trip across the plains was butchered. A thousand drumsticks on the hoof could look mighty appetizing. Bruffey saw the turkey man again after he had sold his birds and learned he had “done well” on the deal.

It is almost forgotten now that, before truck transportation and refrigerated boxcars, turkeys never would have reached city tables for Thanksgiving and Christmas if they hadn’t walked. When leaves put on autumn tints, drovers herded turkeys by the thousands to markets or railheads that were sometimes hundreds of miles away. The birds crossed mountains, rivers, plains, even deserts. A breeding herd is said to have walked from New Mexico to California, taking a year to do it. Cattle drives have been chronicled endlessly; hardly anyone remembers how far turkeys walked in order to be eaten. Here and there an old-timer dredges up memories, and by piecing together scattered accounts, it is possible to reconstruct those picturesque and sometimes fantastic odysseys.

At least one famous cattle fortune was started with the proceeds of turkey-trailing. Henry C. Hooker’s Sierra Bonita ranch in the San Simon Valley of Arizona was, in its day, a desert oasis of baronial splendor. Famous people visited it to ride, breathe the tonic air, and share for a while the cattleman’s way of life. Hooker could tell them plenty about stampedes of cattle, but his first stampede, it seemed, was of turkeys.

As a young man in the 1860’s he ran a hardware business in Hangtown, California, the sudden-death town that later became Placerville. Fire destroyed his store. Hooker rescued a thousand dollars in cash and nothing else. At that time the Comstock Lode was booming. Carson City, Nevada’s infant capital across the High Sierras, was bursting its seams; like many boom towns, it imported food, and people “ate poor.”

Farmers around Hangtown raised turkeys. Looking for a way to up his stake, Hooker thought roast turkey would taste good in Nevada. He began assembling a flock, meaning to walk it over the mountains. Despite dire warnings, Hooker bought all the turkeys he could pay for and set out with a couple of dogs, a helper, and the birds.

Things went well at first. The feathered hikers behaved themselves up to the snow line and beyond. But one day, after Hooker’s flock had passed the summit, it reached a precipitous slope and stopped. As the turkeys milled at the edge, the dogs nagged at them to go. Suddenly they did—by air. Within minutes the last bird had vanished, leaving their owner sure he would never see them again. Hooker later said their departure gave him “the most indescribable feeling” of his adventurous career. Forlornly he made his way down. Suddenly he heard a gobble. Then another. Soon he had rounded up almost every bird: the turkeys seemed anxious to continue the guided tour. In Carson City eager buyers snapped them up at five dollars apiece, and with his profits Hooker bought his first Texas and New Mexico cattle and started his Arizona ranch.

Thomas Heinrich & Son, poultry dealers of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, continued driving turkeys until 1913. The late Joe Heinrich mastered the strange habits of the prima donnas of the Meleagris family the hard way. He said they might decide to go to bed at three in the afternoon, and nothing could stop them. Early to bed, early to rise: a drover who overslept might find his turkeys all over the landscape. Often, Heinrich claimed, they acted as if they were angry because they had not been named the national bird, as Benjamin Franklin had once suggested. Flocks arriving in Mt. Sterling sometimes took fright at nothing perceptible and flew to the tops of the highest buildings. Some would stay there for days, offering targets for sharpshooters, who laid bets on who could kill the most with a rifleshot through the head. Few were killed that way, Heinrich said, since a turkey’s head, containing what brains it has, is scarcely bigger than a silver dollar.

Poultry-science chief W. M. Insko, Jr., of the University of Kentucky, recalls meeting turkey herds on his way home from school when he was a boy. Once, he says, a flock reached town at dusk. The town was served by a small power plant, and not knowing about the arrival of the birds, the plant attendant turned on the street lights. Instantly hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners were perched in trees or on rooftops. Anything, Heinrich said, could spook turkeys on drives: a howling dog, a rifle shot, a flutter of white paper, an engine letting off steam, a fox barking. Sometimes they got mad at the drovers and attacked them.

Turkeys favored trees for roosting, but roofs were nice too. This could prove disastrous. A Vermont-to-Boston flock once picked the roof of a schoolhouse for sleeping, and it caved in. The schoolmaster, working late inside, barely escaped alive.

Another Boston-bound flock collapsed the roof of a covered-bridge tollhouse. The tollkeeper had been slow about raising the gate, and a turkey flew onto the roof, probably to see if crossing by bridge was a sound idea. What one turkey does, others imitate. So many landed on the roof that it crashed down. Most of the profits of that turkey drive went for a new roof.

Drives could produce fun as well as grief, for sometimes rival flocks raced. Once a duck farmer in the tiny town of Denver, Arkansas, bragged about his birds as walkers. A turkey raiser laughed at the brag and challenged him to a race to the poultry market at Springfield, Missouri, some sixty miles away. As everyone knows, ducks have short legs and waddle, while turkeys, if they think it worth the trouble, can out-run a pony for a way. The turkey man’s dare was taken, bets were placed, and details were arranged. Aesop could have made a fable of the result.

On the day set, the turkeys were soon out of sight, leaving the waddling ducks behind. When the sun began to sink, however, the turkeys picked trees for a night’s repose. The ducks kept waddling. Their drover lighted his lantern and walked ahead, his son bringing up the rear. Eyewitnesses (whose memories, perhaps, might have been slightly stretched) said the ducks travelled all night, and were in Springfield next day before the turkey man got his birds out of the trees.

Cattle are still driven to market in some places, and a motorist on a back road can still find himself engulfed in a flood of sheep going somewhere in their goofy way. Turkeys, too, may be driven short distances: a few years ago, on the way from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, I encountered a flock at evening. But just as the great days of stock drives are over, so, too, is the memory of turkey walks fading. There are too many fences and cars, and trucks get the birds to their destinations faster and in better condition for the oven. Turkey-raising has become almost as precise a production-line process as building automobiles. This hasn’t spoiled the taste of roast turkey, but the romance has gone.