Old-Time Turkey Trots: The Long-Gone Practice of Getting Turkeys to Market

Turkey has long been a staple of the Thanksgiving meal. Today, tens of millions are sold each holiday season. But at the turn of the century, before trucks and modern day shipping technology, these large, lumbering birds had to travel to market by foot, sometimes hundreds at a time. For the Allegheny Front, food writer Fred Sauceman takes a look back at the long gone practice of turkey driving in Appalachia.

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HOST INTRO: Turkey has long been a staple of the Thanksgiving meal. Today, tens of millions are sold each holiday season. But at the turn of the century, before trucks and modern day shipping technology, these large, lumbering birds had to travel to market by foot, sometimes hundreds at a time. For the Allegheny Front, food writer Fred Sauceman takes a look back at the long gone practice of turkey driving in Appalachia.

SAUCEMAN: We don't think much nowadays about how turkeys get from farm to market to oven. But from around 1884 to 1920, in rural, mountainous Hancock County, Tennessee, it was quite an undertaking. Imagine moving hundreds of turkeys 35 miles over rugged land and rough water. Imagine keeping track of which turkeys are yours and which belong to your neighbor. Imagine what happens at evening roosting time when the turkeys take control and head for the trees. Imagine your disappointment when, at the end of that long turkey trek, you don't get the price you'd hoped the birds would bring.

Scott Collins of Sneedville isn't old enough to remember the legendary turkey drives of his home county, but he has studied the strange practice as much as anyone. After a 32-year career as a court administrator, he now negotiates business loans for Citizens Bank of East Tennessee in Sneedville. On his office wall is a photograph, taken, he thinks, around 1912. It depicts dozens of turkeys on the grounds of the Hancock County Courthouse, about to be driven in the direction of the Clinch River.

COLLINS: Hundreds of turkeys would be gathered here in front of the Courthouse. They would drive these turkeys to Morristown and to Rogersville to sell them. They would drive those turkeys down to the river and they would put those few turkeys up on that raft and pull them to the other side. Of course, somebody would stay over there with them, and then theyíd pull the raft back and take a few more over.

This went on until they got them all over on the other side of the river. Then, at that time, there was no road. The was just a path down there, and they would lead these turkeys down approximately two maybe three miles, and then they would continue on the path to Morristown.

If dark came, I guess the turkeys decided where they wanted to roost for the night and thatís where theyíd have to stop.

SAUCEMAN: After all the labor and hardship, Scott says the turkey herders were totally at the mercy of the buyers in Morristown and Rogersville. Sometimes the farmers got the price they expected; oftentimes they didn't. But they couldn't turn back and had to accept the offer.

Although the turkey drives seem humorous from the perspective of the 21st century, Scott says they were typical of the extremes people in the mountains had to go to in order to survive.

COLLINS: Back then, that was their way of actually making some money to feed their families, especially at Christmastime. People in this area had it tough. Today, I consider it very humorous even thinking about it. My goodness, if youíre talking about hundreds of turkeys, wouldnít that be something.

SAUCEMAN: Improved transportation, and probably accumulated fatigue, ended the turkey drives. Scott Collins says people today have a hard time believing the drives ever occurred. But they did, and that photograph of soon-to-be-herded turkeys searching the ground for food in front of the Hancock County Courthouse in Tennessee is proof.