Get along little turkeys
They 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 than glory.
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 Stamford, 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 facility.
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.
The first Cuero 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.
Soon, Cuero 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 drumsticks. Civic leaders even invited the president, but he had a previous commitment.
The 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.