In the days before refrigeration, livestock trucks and a highway transportation system that crisscrossed the country, the only way to get turkeys to market for the holidays was to march the birds, like condemned men, to the nearest slaughterhouse.
These long journeys were called turkey drives, similar to the cattle drives romanticized in film and literature, but without the cowboys, the Old West myths or the threat of a stampede from 1,000-pound steers. There was no romance in driving these unruly beasts, trying to keep them from wandering off into neighboring flocks or falling prey to coyotes and other predators.
“As impractical as they may sound today, turkey drives were a common sense solution to a major problem: how to get the surplus of farm-raised turkeys in Vermont to the mass market of Boston,” wrote historian Mark Bushnell in “Hidden History of Vermont.”
“In the days before trains, slaughtering them and shipping them on ice wasn’t an option,” Bushnell continued. “So, the turkeys had to arrive alive at the market. The only way to get them there en masse was to make them walk.”
Turkey drives can trace their history to England, where the first reference to the practice dates to the mid-17th century. In a footnote to his authoritative book, “The Turkey: An American Story,” author Andrew F. Smith unearthed a contemporary report from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, in which an observer noted that Oliver Cromwell marched his 5,100 Scottish prisoners “like turkies” down the road.
Turkey farming had become an important commercial business in 17th-century England, Smith wrote. Most of the turkey farms, however, were in East Anglia on the eastern side of the country, far from London, the primary market.
“While touring England in 1724, the English novelist Daniel Defoe, famous for ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ observed that turkeys filled the roads from East Anglia to London in the autumn,” Smith wrote. “The journey took a week, and in one season as many as three hundred droves passed over a single Stratford Bridge. Defoe noted that droves contained from three hundred to a thousand birds each, so he estimated that between ninety and three hundred thousand birds crossed that one bridge in a single year.”
Driving turkeys was a common practice across the United States, too. From Vermont to Ohio to Texas to California, turkey drives were a familiar sight in the fall. The trick was to drive the animals without losing too many along the way — and without the birds losing too much weight during the trek, which could be 30 miles. Or more.
To keep the turkeys plump — and to encourage them to march — farmers would load a covered wagon with feed. The workers (called “drovers”) who guided the birds would scatter feed along the path to keep the turkeys motivated over the long march. Aside from predators and an occasional poacher who would try to steal a bird for his own dinner table, farmers had to be mindful of covered bridges.
In “Turkey,” Smith quotes from a 1964 novel, “The Great Turkey Drive” by Charles Morrow Wilson, whose story was “informed by the oral tradition about drives,” Smith notes. When the turkeys entered a covered bridge, Wilson wrote, the birds mistook the darkness for nightfall and would promptly fall asleep halfway across the span.
“The solution that Wilson’s drovers found was to carry hundreds of birds, one at a time, across the bridge and into the sunlight,” Smith wrote. “Sometimes, the drovers carried lanterns, Wilson explained, to try to trick the birds into walking a few extra minutes each day.”
Dusk was the enemy of all turkey drivers. As soon as the sun set, the birds would stop walking and start roosting.
“When the shades of evening had reached a certain degree of density, suddenly the whole drove with one accord rose from the road and sought a perch in the neighboring trees,” Smith wrote. “The experienced drover just drew up his wagon beside the road, where he passed the night.”
The vast majority of these drives were practical and transactional, just a routine part of being a turkey farmer during the era. But Cuero, a town in Southeast Texas, would take drives to a new level. Cuero was already home to a processing plant, which attracted ranchers and farmers from around the area, but in 1912, some entrepreneurial-minded townspeople decided to turn the annual march of turkeys into a tourist attraction. They dubbed it the Turkey Trot, after a dance craze of the period.
The 1912 Turkey Trot attracted 30,000 sightseers, who watched a reported 18,000 birds parade down Main Street. The Texas governor attended. The turkeys were followed by turkey-related floats and prominent groups, such as the local Boy Scouts. Cuero would host Turkey Trots, off and on, for decades until the early 1970s, each one a spectacle in itself. For each event, a secret society selected a “sultan” and “sultana,” the Trot’s version of a king and queen, who wore lavish caftans or gomleks to channel the dress of the Ottoman Empire. (This early 20th-century equation, Turkey Trot equals Ottoman Turks, would not fly today.) There was even a sumptuous coronation.
“Sultans were men of high distinction and success, and tradition held that sultanas were college-aged women of local pedigree,” intoned a narrator in the 2007 documentary, “Ruby’s Town” about Cuero. “The royals ruled the fictional land of Turkeydom.”
So what killed the Turkey Trot in 1970s? Industrialization. The broad-breasted white, a turkey bred for an abnormally large breast, had become the preferred bird on American tables. The problem for Cuero is that the bird is so big and so top-heavy, it can barely walk — let alone trot.