The Bird We Are About To Eat

by Laurel | November 24th, 2011

21 November 1897

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving

Our Own and Our Fathers’ Supply

How They Shot It on Our Hills and How We Buy it From the West

When Benjamin Franklin favored the American turkey for the national bird in the early history of the colonies, it is probable that he had its physical traits more in mind than its gastronomic possibilities. But in a way the turkey is the national bird; and at least once a year the scream of the eagle is silenced by the gobbling of the turkey. Strange as it may seem, the turkey that will appear on our tables today is not a descendant of the wild turkey found abundantly here in colonial days and even later, but the degenerate offspring of the Mexican turkey whose habitat is father south. Just how Mexican turkeys should he here is in itself a bit of historical study. According to the story, Cortez, when he completed his famous conquest of Mexico, took back with him to Spain a number of the turkeys of Mexico. From Spain they were imported into England and the continent, and when the Puritans sailed for their New England home they brought with them the turkeys of England, whose descendants form the chief dish of New England’s typical holiday, Thanksgiving. It may be that these journeyings from clime to clime have soured the disposition and sapped the health of turkeydom, certain it is that in certain parts of New England they are raised less and less each year, it becoming more difficult each year to raise them, and for that reason their culture has been in great measure abandoned. Once nearly ever New England farmer had his flock of turkeys; up to very recent years there were at least a half-dozen in every town that raised a flock for the market, or whose flock was reserved for those who had learned that the fresh turkey of the native heath was far superior to the western article. But now the farmer who raises them is an exception — and these exceptions suffered severely this past year, owing to the heavy rains. One grower, who during the past few years has experimented with a turkey flock, had but four or five left when expecting at least 40 this year, and sold them all out and quit the business; and his experience is but one of many similar ones.

The heavy rains of the past year, particularly July’s 15 solid inches of rain raised havoc with the western breeders and cost us about two cents a pound on our turkeys this fall. The young hers were caught in the wet grass and drowns in the pools. A turkey is a queer creature for one thing; it will stand out in the rain and snow rather than take shelter. No matter if there is a good shed 100 feet away, it curls up and breasts rain and snow and cold; having, it is claimed, a marked fear for anything over its head. The mother turkey has an eye like a hawk, and be there an eagle or hawk a mile up in the blue ether she sees it, and with a warning cluck the little “turks” scurry away into the grass and hide, to re-emerge only when a further signal is given them that all is safe.

The wild turkey was exceedingly plentiful in this section in the early days of the colony, and counted upon as a source of food supply of no small merit. They were abundant in Connecticut up to 1780, and even as late as 1790 were of common occurrence. One Thomas Morton writes in 1632 about wild turkeys in New England as follows: —

“Turkies there are, which divers times in great flocks have sailed by our doors; and then a gunne (being commonly in redinesse) salutes them with such a courtesie, as makes them take a turne in the Cook roomc. They dance by the door so well. Of these there hath bin killed, that have weighed 48 pound a piece. they are by mainy degrees sweeter than the tame turkies of England, feede them how you can. I had a savage who hath taken out his boy in a morning and they have brought home their loades about noone. I have asked them what number they found in the woods and they have answered “Neent metawna,” which is a thousand that day. They are easily killed at rooste, because the one being killed and the others sit fast nevertheless, which and this is no bad commodity.”

Linsley in Merriam’s “Birds of Connecticut” is quoted as saying: “The last wild turkey that I have known in Connecticut was taken by a relative of mine, about 30 years since (about 1813) on Tokoket Mountain in Northford. It was overtaken in a deep snow and thereby outrun.” If this authority be correct, they disappeared much earlier in Connecticut than in this state and Vermont. William Street, who kept the Nonotuck house on Mt. Tom for many years, wrote as follows to Robert O. Morris of Springfield in reply to a question about the wild turkey: “I well remember hearing wild turkeys near the south end of Mt. Tom about the year 1848 0 1849. My brother saw the last wild turkey that I ever heard of on Mt. Tom in the winter of 1850 and 1851, I think, and a short time afterwards it was shot by a man from Holyoke. I think I have the date right as we moved away the next year.” This date is later, it will be seen, that that commonly accredited as the date the last turkey was killed on Mt. Tom. It was generally supposed that the one killed in 1847 and stuffed and mounted by Prof. W. D. Whitney of Yale college and now in the Peabody museum at that institution was the last turkey known to hae been killed wild in the state. It is quite likely, however, that stray birds were killed in wilder and more remote parts of the state in the early ’50’s — of this we have no record. The following records are authentic. In 1852 H. B. Lewis saw a wild turkey gobbler on the East mountain and a large searching party went after it, not unsuccessfully. Within a year or two afterwards a wild turkey was shot on Mt. Tom and thought to have been the one seen in 1852.

October used to be called the “turkey moon” by the Indians. Audubon gives us this picture of the wild turkey flocks in this month. “When they come upon a river the betake themselves to the highest branches and there often remain a whole day, or sometimes two, as if for consultation. During this time the males are heard gobbling, calling and making much ado, and are seen strutting about as if to raise their courage to a pitch befitting such an emergency. Even the females and the young make something of the same pompous demeanor, spread out their tails and run around each other, purring loudly and performing extravagant leaps. At length when the weather appears settled, and all around is quiet, the whole party mount to the tops of the highest trees, whence at a signal given by the leader, consisting of a single cluck, the flock takes flight for the opposite shore.”

In Vermont the turkeys seem to have remained longer perhaps than in the other states. Zadock Thompson in his “History of Vermont” (1842) writes: “A few continue to still visit and breed upon the mountains in the southern part of the state.” Yet later than three periods we have taken upon tale ans story upon story about their frequency: the story is told that north of the armory grounds as late as 1817 they were plentiful. C. C. Merritt remembers that in the swamps about here 50 years ago there were quite a number. According to a story told by William Smith, a former well-known resident of Springfield, in his 91st year, he could remember as a small boy of his grandmother’s standing on the back porch of a house on Bay street (known now as the Gould house) and shaking her tablecloth of the crumbs; following which a large flock of wild turkeys would run up from the woods and eagerly devour them.

An explanation of these seeming contradictions among the earlier historical authorities quoted is found in a record left by one John Josselyn, who, writing in 1672 says: “I have also seem three-score broods of young turkeys on the side of a marsh sunning themselves of a morning betimes, but this was 30 years since, the English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed so that it is very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the woods; but some of the English bring up a great store of the wild kind which remains about their houses as tame as ours in England.” It is not reasonable to suppose that later accounts of the prevalence of wild turkeys really refer to these :tamed” wild turkeys, which might possibly have returned to their wild ways.

In the early ’20s, and even earlier, the turkey shoot was one of the leading sports. It was a case of general jollification; all the more jolly for the presence of a jug of real old New England rum of the Medford variety or of some choice Santa Cruz. In later years, from 1845 to 1855m the Washingtonian movement had gained some ground and it was really beginning to be thought that some of the orgies at these early sports were a little disgraceful. Indeed, proof is not lacking that there was a moral sentiment against the sport at even earlier times. It is undoubtedly true that the sale of rum was a great factor for profit in these shoots; and at them the most “sporty” class were to be found. Favorite places in this vicinity for these shoots in their palmy days were the Hampden house in Chicopee, the Hatfield house, halfway from Springfield to Chicopee, burned a year or so ago; and the Five-mile house out on the Boston road. The society for the prevention of cruelty to animals would doubtless take active measures to prevent to-day anything like he turkey shoot of those days.

C. C. Merritt tells about a turkey shoot that he attended when a young man in 1855 in Phillipston. This was one of the strictest and most strait-laced towns in the state, and the shot was the cause of considerable feeling. It was given by one Martin Crawford. Mr. Merritt, who was then 24 years old, had a good rifle and knew how to use it; and as the shoot was only about four miles away, got permission of his employer to attend. When he got there, there was rather a motley crowd, all the blacklegs and riff-raff from round about being out in force. He looked around in some disgust, but, finally concluded to stay. There was plenty of rum circulating about in jugs and other packages and plenty of loaf sugar as an accompaniment. The men shot one at a time at a turkey at about 70 rods distant. It was placed on a small bit of a platform on the side of a stake driven into the earth; the bird was tied so that it couldn’t get down from the platform and the turkey-seekers blazed away at it. Owing to the distance, which was unknown, the shots were seldom successful. A fee of nine-pence — 12 1/2 cents — was charged for each shot, which was about the price per pound of turkeys. Mr. Merritt watched several try at the bird. He then fired several times unsuccessfully, but all the time experimenting with his sights to get the range. He finally got the sights adjusted for the distance and in 17 successive shots bagged 6 turkeys and five chickens at that distance, for they had chickens as well as turkeys at that shoot, after which he marched proudly home well satisfied with his day’s sport. The rule at that time was if blood was drawn the turkey was considered to have been won. Later matches and shoots have differed as to methods. Sometimes the birds were shot at a less distance in he open and if they ran so many feet after the shot they were not forfeited.

It has passed beyond the recollection of many that the driving of large flocks of turkeys to the Boston and Brighton markets was years ago an enterprise of considerable magnitude. The process was similar to that employed in driving hers of cattle to market. Starting a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving time the turkey driver would reach some far-away town — perhaps Keene, NH, Williamstown or some other distant locality — and there begin his “march to the sea.” From farm-house to farm-house he would journey, collecting as many from the flocks of turkeys as the shrewd housewife could be induced to part with for a reasonable figure — in those days the housewife had charge of the poultry and the income arising there from — driving along his increasing flock as he went. Often these drovers had a regular route and time, and the “wimmen folks” were sure of seeing him at about such a time every year. It can be imagined that there was some shrewd bargaining between these same wives and the calculating trader; and it is not unlikely that the trader found himself hard put to make a good bargain. however this may be, his onward march soon increased his flock to such a size that it soon required the aid of a few helpers to keep the flock in order in passing through a village, as the flocks sometimes contained 900 or 1000 turkeys. So the small boy, quite as omnipresent then as now, was invoked into service, and for a copper or two could easily be induced to go with him quite a distance as a guard against any flank movements on the part of the turkey troops.

The turkey like the sheep will “follow its leader” blindly; and on this fact hangs a tail. Once mischievous boy thus employed concocted a scheme to have some fun on his own account. He first punch small holes in his trousers pockets; then he filled his pockets with corn; as he marched along the corn trickled our into the road. Getting to one side he threaded his way into lanes, over low walls, into brush heads and across lots, a line of turkeys following him blindly following him much to his great glee and the great sorrow of the drover who could not understand, not watching the boy closely, why the turkeys should from time to time make blind rushes fr the lanes and byways along the route. At length after one or two seasons of sport one boy was discovered and given a sound thrashing, with which finale this history like nearly all others of boy pranks of the early days closes.

The center of the turkey producing industry has moved steadily westward. Once it was in New England; from there it moved to New york state; it then drifted farther west and now Michigan claims the honor. Once, too, a warm Thanksgiving day, especially if a few warm days preceded it, was a source of woe to the market dealer. There was, years ago, no extensive cold storage system, and refrigeration was not to be compared with the present systems and often was simple and of slight extent. Consequently it is a fact that nice plump turkeys have been sold on Thanksgiving week for six cents a pound, there being the chance of keeping them. No in case of low prices or warm weather off they go into the cold storage as a result the prices are maintained at nearly a level. Like other commodities the great majority of the turkeys that are shipped East are bought up by agents for large wholesale firms, most of them being sent east to be frozen; although there are firms in Chicago and other places that freeze them before they are sent East. The retail dealers now get most of them in a frozen condition.

No account of the Thanksgiving would be complete that lacks a word of tribute to the growth of the Thanksgiving spirit as manifest in the increasing desire to see that every deserving family is supplied with a turkey. Within the past 10 or a dozen years the churches have as a body taken the matter up and now each year the largest of the churches of the city annually make glad 50 to 75 homes that otherwise would be without the turkey dinner befitting the day. In addition there are many men and women of means who can be relied upon to contribute to worthy cases when they are called to their attention; more than that, often ask for cases to aid; and their names remain unknown to the recipient and to the public. Another custom has grown within the past few years is that of the giving to the employees of large concerns a turkey each year by the company. So general has this custom become that one man who was employed by several families of means in the city to take care of their furnaces received a turkey from each as a matter of course. And the man was perfectly able to buy one at that. mention has already been made of the family that received 15 turkeys last year, owing to the fact that no one compared lists with his neighbor or church with church. This year something in the way of comparison is being attempted at the Union Relief Association and it is expected that duplication will in large measure be avoided.

A feature of late years in connection with the celebration of Thanksgiving is that of furnishing whole turkey dinners by caterers hot from the ovens. hotels make more elaborate provisions for the celebration of the day each year, and as for Thanksgiving church suppers, they run indefinitely though the whole month of November. The observance of the day seems to increase rather than decrease, and already had made its way southward and westward and bids fair to become universal in the future “from the Golden Gate to the last curved extremity of the Maine coast.”

Adapted from The Springfield Republican.

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