Today, the term farm-to-table signifies the epitome of local food. But nearly 200 years ago, it meant something entirely different when Thanksgiving turkeys traveled hundreds of miles from Vermont farms to Massachusetts tables — on foot.
"Turkey drives" were an autumnal tradition from the 1800s to the early 1900s, and involved the overland strolling of flocks of turkeys from all corners of Vermont to their destination — and demise — in Boston.
"We're talking about thousands [of turkeys] in each trip ... Up to 10,000," Peter Gilbert, chair of the Vermont Humanities Council, tells Vermont Edition. "One of the largest drives in the fall of 1824 involved 40 homesteads ... They went all the way from northern Vermont and the Canadian border by a variety of routes, through Ferrisburgh in the west, down the Connecticut River [in the east]."
Farmers' children often acted as drovers, scattering cracked corn in the turkeys' path to coax them along the route. And the route wasn't always smooth:
"Remember, in 1824 the roads were not very good," Gilbert says. "Sometimes they were just paths, sometimes they made their way across fields. Sometimes they had wagons, but this was a primitive and challenging trip."
The going was slow, Gilbert says — just 10 to 12 miles a day — and not without casualties. "They lost a lot of turkeys on the way — maybe 10 percent of them were drowned in river crossings or taken by foxes or died of natural causes. And one of the natural causes would be ... farmers’ families. As the turkeys walked by the farm, a couple of them might lose their way into a pot in the farm family’s kitchen."
And the turkeys presented their own challenges, namely their tendency to roost where they were not welcome. "Wherever they are when the sun sets, that’s where they perch for the night," says Gilbert. "And their collective weight shatters trees; occasionally birds end up perching on a farmer’s shed or barn and the building collapses. In fact, in one town, they roosted on top of the school building and the school collapsed. That was in Burke."
Even the illusion of dusk prompted the turkeys to roost; this led to many prolonged stops inside dim covered bridges. "The drovers would have to go in there and pick them up and carry them through the bridge into the sun where they’d perk up again and head on their way," Gilbert explains. "There’s a record of a fellow in southern Vermont reporting how they clogged a covered bridge for two days."
In 1840, a Father John O'Sheehan had a traumatizing run-in with a flock: "He was headed north in his surrey towards Brattleboro and he met a turkey drive headed south. The turkeys began to roost on his surrey and on the backs of his horses, and so he had to drive for dear life to get out of there – but he still ended up with a good coating of turkey guano all over himself and his surrey and his horses."
Turkey drives became less common in the 1850s, when railroads began servicing Vermont and farmers chose to ship their turkeys in refrigerated box cars. "Also adding to their [drives'] demise was the rise of steamboat traffic on Lake Champlain and New York State's canal ways, which were coming into their own in the early 19th century."
In their heyday, though, the drives brought welcome activity to sleepy rural towns.
"This must have been an exciting enterprise to be part of, an exciting parade, as it were, going through your little town," Gilbert says.
Exciting, that is, in a New England sort of way:
"It stands in delightful contrast to the celebrated, heroic cattle drives from the American West that are portrayed in so many cowboy films," Gilbert observes. "And here in the East we have turkey drives. It’s just a wonderful contrast."
This interview originally aired, and was published online, on Nov. 27, 2013.