A Thousand Drumsticks on the Hoof

We’ve all heard of Old West cattle drives, but did you ever hear of a turkey drive?

If you raised turkeys during the early nineteenth century and wanted to get them to market in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas, there was only one way to do it; you had to walk them.

Before refrigerator boxcars and trucks, drovers herded turkeys thousands of miles to markets or railheads. They crossed mountains, plains and deserts. In 1863 Horace Greenley walked five hundred turkeys from Iowa to Colorado, a trek of six hundred miles.  His wagon was packed with corn and drawn by six horses and mules, but his turkeys grew fat by devouring grasshoppers. 

Greeley wasn’t the only one with a long trek. It was once to a year for breeding herd to be driven from New Mexico Territory to California.  Some farmers hired boy drovers to help keep the feathered hikers in line, others used dogs.

Turkeys are temperamental birds, but they are fast walkers.  With no distractions, the wind behind them and a certain amount of luck, they can travel twenty-five miles a day.  They also have strange habits. One early drover complained that if his turkeys had a mind to, they would bed down at three in the afternoon and nothing or no one could change their minds.

Cattle had nothing on turkeys as far as stampedes were concerned.  A rifle shot, howling coyote or flutter of paper could put drumsticks on the run.  One poor drover herding his rafter of turkeys through town had to give chase when a streetlight turned on.

Turkeys liked to roost in trees, but roofs were favored, too, sometimes with disastrous results.  When a flock traveling from Vermont to Boston roosted on a schoolhouse, the roof caved in and the late-working schoolmaster barely escaped with his life.  Another flock flew onto the roof of a toll bridge and the drover’s profits went toward replacing the roof.   

Turkey farmers have it easy today in comparison and, so for that matter, do we.  Now we can enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner without having to worry about the roof caving in.

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!