said it in Latin, but the wiser of the ancients realized all glory
is fleeting. And often fame never comes.
The storied trail
driving era, when Texas cowboys in the 1870s pushed hundreds of
thousands of longhorns
to wild and wooly railroad towns in Missouri and later, Kansas, is
one of the best known periods in American history. Turkey herding?
That early day method of poultry transportation saw way more gobble
Consider the classic cattle trail song, "Get Along Little Doggies."
Now think how it would sound this way:
Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little turkeys
It's your misfortune ain't none of my own
Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little turkeys...
No matter that it's been largely forgotten, herding large flocks of
turkeys from Point A to Point B once was as much a part of the wild
west as gold rushes, gambling and gunfights. The reason was the lack
of refrigeration. Meat only stayed fresh on the hoof--or scaly four-toed
feet. With large trucks yet to be invented, and assuming no rail service,
the only way to get large numbers of turkeys from the farm to the
dinner table was for mounted men to herd them.
Though it probably happened earlier, the first known Texas turkey
drive took place around 1907, when pioneer Stamford
resident R.M. Dickenson paid to have 500 turkeys driven 18 miles from
Haskell to Stamford.
The drive didn't work out too well.
It took the horseback drovers a full day to make the trip. The plan
was to hold the gobblers and hens at the edge of town, then move them
to the processing facility in the morning. But as the herd approached
the sun was setting. Turkeys, unlike cattle,
do not lay down at night. They take to a roost, a tree or some other
high place, where they can be safe from predators.
"The birds...proceeded to do as nature directed them," a country correspondent
for the Abilene Reporter-News wrote in 1937. "There were turkeys on
house tops and turkeys in trees, and turkeys all about until the flock
was rounded up again, with but three missing." (Doubtless to the immense
satisfaction of local coyotes.)
Dickenson decided that transporting turkeys was too much trouble,
but in one South Texas community, turkeys soon strutted far ahead
of cattle in economic importance. That happened in Cuero,
where in 1908 someone opened a processing plant and refrigeration
The ready availability of large trucks still a decade or more in the
future, local turkey farmers herded their flocks to market. Riders
kept the birds getting along--and together--until the walking, gobbling
Thanksgiving and Christmas meals reached their literal final destination.
turkey drive to make the newspapers came in November 1910, when Rudolph
and Oscar Egg of the small, German-rooted community of Meyersville
drove 1,200-plus turkeys to the county seat for sale at the processing
plant, which one newspaper indelicately referred to as a "slaughter
house." It took the brothers and six hired hands on horseback two
days to herd the birds 13 miles into town.
had two processing plants and cold storage facilities. Given the area's
mild climate, abundant open land and natural food sources, turkey
raising in DeWitt County
took off faster than a startled Tom. By 1914, Cuero
shipped more turkeys than any other place in the nation.
One turkey drive had 8,000 birds flapping and pecking their way along
Main Street on their way to becoming holiday meals. But there would
be larger herds.
"It took the drovers 30 hours to deliver the turkeys," a North Texas
newspaper said of the 8,000-bird drive. "The birds took a notion to
roost in a grove about four miles from town, and nothing would induce
them to continue the march to the slaughtering pens."
On the other hand, the article continued, "When the birds are well
behaved and meet with no strange obstacles on the road the drovers
have no difficulty." Still, the unidentified journalist pronounced,
"When a turkey drive becomes really frightened a cattle
stampede is a tame affair in comparison."
The drives happened every November, and the spectacle of thousands
of big birds strutting through Cuero
began attracting locals and curious visitors. That did not go unnoticed
by the editor of the town's newspaper, who pushed for a festival to
coincide with the annual rite of passage. So, on Nov. 25-27, 1912,
an estimated 30,000 folks showed up to see 18,000 turkeys on their
way to becoming so many frozen breasts and drum sticks. Civic leaders
even invited the president, but he had a previous commitment.
Great Depression and World
War Two kept the celebration an intermittent affair, but in
1973, what had been called the Cuero Turkey Trot became the Cuero
Turkyfest and it has continued as an annual event since then.
The need to move turkeys afoot having long since passed, the high
point of the festival for years has been a turkey race.
While turkey drives inspired the Turkeyfest, those who made their
living pushing the big birds to market never got the favorable publicity
their counterparts in the cattle business enjoyed. Legend and lore
attendant to the trail-driving
era seared into the public consciousness like a hot branding
iron on a steer's flank. Indeed, the word "cowboy" stands as an
enduring American icon recognized world-wide, but for some reason
"turkeyboys" just never caught on.
"Texas Tales" November
16, 2017 column