Raising Turkeys for Market in the 1800s

raising turkeys
Bronze Gobbler, Author’s Collection

In the 1800s, turkeys were raised with the idea of the ultimate end: killing them and eating them. Turkeys were not exactly domesticated either. Apparently, when they were chicks they were nomads and when they gained locomotion they scurried away at the slightest provocation. They also had a habit of making beelines for distant haunts, which made them difficult to find when it came to selling them at market for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Turkeys are interesting birds. They are neither amiable nor sociable birds. There is also no great love between them and man. Young turkeys are difficult to care for and very susceptible to disease. For that reason, farmer’s found it difficult to count on a monetary return with turkeys in comparison to chicks. In fact, in the 1800s, sometimes scores of young turkeys died after a heavy rain shower.

Bronze turkeys were said to be the most prized in America and was the smallest departure from wild birds when it came to color. There was also no other turkey that matched its plumage because when the bird was in its second or third year, they were said to be “uniformly beautiful in plumage.” Bronze turkeys were also heavier than common stock. Males were often 25 pounds and females 16. However, in well-bred flocks, it was not uncommon for adults pairs to reach 45 to 50 pounds and, sometimes, although rare, as much as 60 to 65 pounds.

raising-turkeys-for-market-7426-x350
Scenes Depicting Raising Turkeys for Market

The 1881 sketch to the right shows the various stages involved in the turkey raising and the marketing process. Grasshoppers, insects, and grubs formed the major diet for turkeys. However, when chestnuts ripened, turkeys knew the location of all the chestnut trees on a farm and gorged themselves. Chestnuts were so appealing that if a boy climbed a tree and shook it, before he could touch the ground, he found a flock of turkeys gobbling up the nuts.

When the turkey was plump, it was killing time. There was always a glut of turkeys for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year. In the nineteenth century, turkey season began near the end of October, reached its height in January, and closed about February 22nd. This was also the time when turkey farmers began to speculate about the turkey’s weight and prospective turkey prices.

Turkeys were fattened for weeks to prepare them for slaughter. To accomplish the fattening process a trough was constructed, into which a paste of Indian meal and water was poured. The Indian meal mixture remained the turkey’s major diet until killing time arrived. When it was killing time, turkeys were driven to the barn, as shown in the “drive ’em up” scene. Strategy rather than brute force was employed to accomplish this task because wily birds often escaped and children and farmers found themselves chasing down the errant gobblers.

Before they were killed, turkeys were gathered and cribbed. Farmers used a small bladed pocket-knife to kill the birds using one of two methods: The first was to pass the knife directly through the bird’s neck, with the edge upward, so as to separate the neck and head; and the second used the point of the blade, which was inserted in the upper part of the mouth and thrust into the brain.

Turkey Dinner, Author's Collection
Turkey Dinner, Author’s Collection

Turkeys were plucked in the barn. Plucking was done while the bird was still warm because it was easier to remove the feathers. Everyone on the farm performed this job and donned their oldest clothes to accomplish this task. Farmers, farmer’s wives, and children plucked with a great deal of care. The bird’s flesh was tender and a single tear rendered the bird unsightly and depreciated its value at market. Once plucked, farmers weighed the bird, put it in a cool place, and shipped it to market as quickly as possible.

In England, Norfolk was the most popular area known for raising turkeys. Instead of shipping dead turkeys to market, in the early 1800s, full grown Norfolk turkey were driven to market in London. One writer reported in the mid 1800s that when the turkeys were sold “as a rule … they may be compared to diamonds … inasmuch as their value increases in a geometrical ratio with their weight. A bird of nine pounds being purchasable at about seven shillings.”

References:

  • American Agriculturist, Volume 36, 1877
  • Harper’s Weekly, 1876
  • Harper’s Weekly, 1881
  • The Leisure Hour, Vol. 12, 1863
  • The Poultry Monthly, Volumes 2-3, 1880

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