People & Places

Then Again: Turkey drives were 1800s version of ‘farm to table’

Turkeys Vermont
During the early 1800s, before the arrival of the railroads, Vermont farmers took turkeys to markets as far away as Boston on foot. WikiCommons photo

(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)

If you want something to be thankful for, be glad you weren’t a Vermont farmer in the early 1800s. Compared to most of our jobs, their work was almost unimaginably grueling. Consider this: Before the arrival of the railroads, they regularly walked their goods to market, in places as far away as Boston.

The goods in question were animals. This time of year that often meant turkeys, by the hundreds or thousands, that would often end up as the main course for Thanksgiving (a day that was celebrated though not yet an official national holiday) and Christmas. Amazingly, some farmers made the trek repeatedly. They had to; they were that hard up.

As impractical as turkey drives might sound, they were a common-sense solution to a major problem: how to get the surplus of farm-raised turkeys in Vermont to the mass market of Boston. Since this was before trains arrived, slaughtering them and shipping them on ice wasn’t an option. The turkeys had to arrive at market alive, and the only way to get them there en masse was to make them walk.

The number of people working to herd a single flock south may have ranged from several to several dozen, depending on the number of birds. The various jobs, however, remained the same. Some worked as drovers, which as the name suggests meant they drove the turkeys, using a prod to urge them along. Sometimes they would sprinkle feed on the ground to coax the birds forward. The drovers occasionally would tie a bell around the neck of a dominant turkey, which made the others more likely to follow.

Others worked at the rear, watching for strays; turkeys had a tendency to wander off and join a different flock when they passed other turkey farms. Workers also watched for predators, which might view the flock as an easy meal, and even for people who might claim a stray turkey as their own.

The drovers relied on others to drive a supply wagon that carried their food and tents and also enough corn to help the birds maintain their weight during the trip.

The whole contingent hit the road as early as possible each day and walked until about nightfall. As dark approached, one of the lead birds would flap its way into a tree, and that was it. The day was over. The other birds would immediately find their own places to roost and nod off.

Charles Morrow Wilson wrote of the problems drovers faced in his 1964 novel “The Great Turkey Drive.” Though a work of fiction, Wilson’s book is informed by oral tradition about the drives. He writes that drovers faced trouble when they tried to cross covered bridges. The birds often mistook the bridges’ darkness for nightfall and fell asleep partway across, choking off the bridge. The solution that Wilson’s drovers found was to carry hundreds of birds, one at a time, across the bridge and back into sunlight. To extend the day past dusk, drovers sometimes carried lanterns, Wilson explained, to try to trick the birds into walking a few extra minutes before deciding to rest.

Turkeys were ill suited to the long walks, however, so farmers began tarring the birds’ feet to protect them. The awkward caravan could make about 10 or 12 miles a day across fields and along the dirt roads of the day, so the entire trip to Boston could take as long as three weeks.

Farmers often took the treks on pure speculation. They had no guaranteed buyer at the other end. And if the birds died along the way — and typically about 10 percent were lost to predation, disease and straying — farmers had to do what they could to recoup the loss. Sometimes they would augment their flock as they passed farms, buying birds along the way.

As they arrived in the city, the Vermont farmers fattened up their birds just before selling them. They made their sales and then returned with cash, or with finished goods that were unavailable in Vermont.

Farmers undertook these journeys in the fall because at that time of year they could find leftover grain in the fields along the way for the birds to eat. It didn’t hurt sales, of course, that Bostonians were looking for something special to put on their table for the holidays. An 1830s cookbook notes that Bostonians were sure to find turkeys most plentiful in November and December.

The old turkey drives are remembered in stories and song. More than a decade ago, the late Margaret MacArthur, a folk music historian, learned about the drives while working with a group of fifth-graders from Newbury. Together they composed a song about this bit of local history:

“Long ago there was no money
In the town we live in now.
They sent flocks and herds to Boston
Of turkey, geese, sheep and cows

To get turkeys into Boston,
They had to travel far
So farmers spread upon their feet
Heavy coats of tar

Across the Bedell Bridge
A drover boy named Murphy
Drove on foot to Boston
One hundred fifty turkey

Along the Coos turnpike,
many went astray,
’til he sprinkled corn and gathered
many more along the way.”

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