Gilbert: Vt’s Great Turkey Drives

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(HOST) In anticipation of the Annual National Day of Listening this Friday, commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert retells a story that he thinks should not be forgotten – especially around Thanksgiving.  When he first told it, some people wondered if such a funny story could really be true.  But it is.

(GILBERT) Before railroads, the only way to get turkeys from Vermont to market in Boston was to walk them there.  And that, throughout much of the nineteenth century, is exactly what Vermonters did, including Vermonters from the northern-most parts of the state.  Townspeople put their birds of a feather together, and, accompanied by wagons with camp supplies and tons of feed grain, they escorted as many as 7,000 birds at a time all the way to Boston.  Drives of three to four thousand birds were common in the 1820s and ‘30s.  Historian Charles Morrow Wilson says that about 1,000 birds was the minimum necessary to make the150 to 350-mile trek worthwhile.  It was a long haul.  The flocks could make only ten to twelve miles a day, and at least one drover was required for each 100 birds.

Boys scattered shelled corn feed in front of the birds, so they would walk forward, while others herded from behind.  Flocks might spread out for more than a mile, ranging in width from a few feet to fifty yards.  To protect the birds’ feet on such a long hike over rough terrain and November’s frozen ground, Vermonters sometimes coated the birds’ feet with warm tar.  They lost about ten percent of the birds to forded rivers, fox, hungry farm families they met on route, and other perils of the journey.

Two key facts to keep in mind are: big birds, little brains.  Wherever they were when the sun set, that’s where they perched for the night.  Their collective weight shattered trees.  Occasionally, so many birds perched on a farmer’s shed or barn that the building collapsed.  They sometimes mistook the shade of a covered bridge for dusk and simply stopped.  And so the drovers would have to go in, pick them up, carry them through the bridge and into the sun, where they’d perk up again and head on their way.

The advent of railroads and then, in the 1850s and ‘60s, refrigerated box cars were the beginning of the end for the great turkey drives, but some lasted into the twentieth century.  The notion, in the twenty-first century, of driving thousands of turkeys, or even two birds on a leash, from Island Pond south all the way to Boston is charming in its absurdity.

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