A Long, Hard Walk to Boston
A turkey-drawn wagon? Looks like a fun ride, but try driving thousands of these ungainly wild birds hundreds of miles from Vermont to Boston — on foot! (photo source: Library of Congress via VPR.net)
Think of a turkey drive today and you'll conjure images of going to the supermarket to buy a bird, then driving your car to the local food shelf to drop it off for a person or family in need. Not so back in the 1800's when thousands of turkeys and their drovers would take to the highways and byways of Vermont to coax and prod their flocks of wild turkeys to market in Boston, on foot no less!
Back in the 1820's and 1830's it was worth the effort to walk turkeys from all parts of Vermont if the owner had at least 1,000 birds. About ten percent or so of the flock would be lost to all sorts of menaces along the way — foxes, dogs, and even other farmers who needed a bird or two to stuff in their pots for a good meal — so the more birds you had, the higher your profits in Boston if you could avoid some pitfalls.
There were turkey drives around the country, most notably in the southeast and northeast. But in Vermont, walking a thousand to as many as seven thousand wild turkeys 150 to 350 miles along roads that could be mere footpaths in the woods at times was no easy task. Boys would typically scatter corn in front of the flock to encourage them to move forward, while the farmers would push the birds from the back of the flock.
I count a hundred birds, more or less, in this photo. Imagine moving a flock of thousands along dirt roads for hundreds of miles? What a feat for Vermont farmers! (image: farmgatetoplate.co.uk)
Turkeys are not smart, generally speaking, but these wild birds could fly, and fly they might if they were frightened. A gun shot, a dog's bark, even a piece of cloth flapping in the wind could frighten the lead birds which, taking flight, would have the rest of the flock in the air soon enough. Gathering up all these birds was no easy task, but it was possible when farmers would beat their guns against tree stumps and make lots of noise as they fanned out over a distance to again corral the birds and get them headed in the right direction.
Back in England, turkey drives were also common. There, farmers often put booties on their turkeys so their feet would be protected from hardscrabble roads. Here, in Vermont, booties were not used, but some farmers would dip the turkeys' feet in tar to protect them from roadway hazards. Remember, we're talking about dirt paths in the 1800's and not the nicely paved roads we have today. Ruts and rocks, water and mud were all common as the birds traveled at the astonishingly glacial pace of just 10 - 12 miles per day. Because these birds are motivated to move by daylight, if a farmer awakened too late, he might find his flock already headed in the wrong direction!
What else could make this a more, ummm, fascinating experience? Well, how about trying to drive turkeys through a covered bridge? The darkness within would signal nighttime to the birds who would then start to roost. Often, farmers and their young boy drovers would have to carry birds out of the bridges and back into the daylight where they would awaken and start walking again.
Dusk also had its hazards. When a turkey senses failing light, it roosts. That means it flies up to a perch of some sort. Too many birds on a perch and the perch would come crashing down to the ground. A schoolhouse in Burke, VT was once taken down this way, as were some barns, and even a toll-keeper's booth somewhere near Boston. Turkeys could even shred limbs to the ground if too many favored one particular tree.
Add a few more dozen birds and tree limbs would tear away to the ground!
It's been rumored out west, where turkey drives also took place, that turkeys would sometimes roost on the tallest building in a town. Then, people would try to shoot them down with whatever gun they happened to have on hand. Imagine your windows getting shot out as a group of people down on the street fired up at a turkey on your roof. I suppose that was when the west was truly wild!
I can only imagine a flock of five to ten thousand wild turkeys marching into Boston today, being herded by a bunch of young boys on foot, some throwing corn in front of the birds while farmers with ten days of unshaven and unbathed beauty bringing up the rear shouting and yelling to keep the birds on the straight and narrow within the confines of the city's streets.
As if this wasn't enough hardship to get a bird from farm to table, the final buyer of the bird would need to pluck it and clean it before cooking. This often involved lots of scalding water, chapped hands, and a great deal of pulling out tiny feathers as tenacious as present-day super glue between your fingers.
Today's table birds for Thanksgiving are much easier to come by now that transportation has evolved. What ended the turkey drives, you might ask? Railroads with refrigerated cars were the main reason, or so I've read. It was much easier to march a large flock into a train car than spending ten days on the dusty and muddy roads trying to corral and direct an unwieldy flock of thousands. The next time you hear some say "it's like herding cats," think about "herding turkeys" and you'll have a much better image of how challenging a situation can be. Cats, after all, can't fly!
Finally, here's an image that just arrived today in an email from a friend in Arizona. I guess the Wild Wild West really was pretty outrageous in its day.
When the West was really wild!
Happy Thanksgiving to all today. Enjoy whatever it is you eat, and let's all be grateful we're not out their driving a flock of thousands of birds hundreds of miles during the cold days of November!
Dave Celone lives in Post Mills, VT, and he loves turkey! Dave writes whenever he can about whatever is fascinating in this world. He manages Long River Gallery & Gifts in White River Junction, VT. Visit for a uniquely wonderful experience. It's a place where more than 150 local Upper Valley VT and NH artists show their diverse work of art and craft every day. Click Here if you'd like to sign up to follow Dave each time he posts. Click Here for Dave's previous article about Bruce Murray, a master potter from Bradford, VT and the work he shows at Long River Gallery & Gifts.