Turkeys play a surprisingly interesting part in Alabama’s history and traditions. The Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection and Governor Bob Riley Collection highlight a treasure trove of fowl-related history in Alabama. Read on to see some great photos from the collections and learn more about how both wild and domestic turkeys have played a role in Alabamian traditions.
Perhaps the most prominent of turkey traditions is the annual turkey pardoning by the sitting governor. On November 12, 2022 Governor Ivey pardoned turkeys, Clyde and Henrietta. The two lucky birds will return to the Bates Turkey Farm to live out the rest of their natural lives. This marked the 72nd turkey pardon in the state’s history. The first pardon occurred in 1949, when William C. “Bill” Bates dreamed up a publicity stunt to increase interest in his turkey farm business. Bates donated a turkey to Governor Folsom, who then publicly granted the turkey named “Clyde,” a reprieve from being a part of Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey pardon proved popular, and every year since, the Bates Turkey Farm has donated lucky turkeys to the governor to pardon. Each male turkey is named “Clyde.” Some years, a female turkey is also pardoned; she is always named “Henrietta.”
Local thanksgiving and turkey-themed celebrations gained popularity in the 20th century in Alabama. Today when most people hear of a turkey trot, visions of Thanksgiving morning marathons come to mind. The original turkey trot was a far less innocent event that occurred in several towns across the state. Live turkeys were tossed from a 25-foot-high platform or a roof, and anyone who caught a turkey could take it home for Thanksgiving dinner. (Wild turkeys can fly but not well enough to survive a 25-foot drop without sustaining at least some injury.) Today Collinsville, which held its first turkey trot in 1912, no longer releases live turkeys. Instead, Beanie Baby turkeys are tossed from a roof, and anyone who catches a beanie baby receives a frozen turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner.
In 1940, Uniontown held the town’s first Turkey Carnival, which included a turkey trot, parades, beauty pageants, and the heaviest turkey contest. Sadly, the Carnival, which brought thousands of spectators to the small town, lasted only three years due to the United States’ entry into World War II.
While Thanksgiving turkey traditions feature only once a year, turkey hunting seasons in Alabama is a biannual celebration. Today, Alabama commonly tops the list of states with the largest population of wild turkeys. The abundance of eastern wild turkeys has allowed Alabama to offer both Fall and Spring turkey hunting seasons. Hunters can bag one “gobbler” (male turkey) per day and up to four gobblers per season.
The abundance of eastern wild turkeys was not always the case. Early white explorers in the region noted vast amounts of birds, including turkeys, but by the turn of the 20th century, an estimate of only 10,000 wild turkeys roamed the state due to overhunting and habitat loss. The Great Depression further strained the turkey population as Alabamians supplemented their diets through hunting. Beginning in the 1950s, the State launched conservation and wildland management programs allowing the wild turkey population to flourish once again.
In the mid-1950s, The Alabama Game and Fish Division (now Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries) restocked eastern wild turkeys in North Alabama on private and public lands. Hunting turkeys was banned for five years to facilitate several unhindered brooding seasons. Famed Alabamian turkey hunter Ray Jones, whose family farm was one of the sites the restocking efforts took place, claims that those turkeys walked up to Tennessee. Regardless of whether enough poults (baby turkeys) lived to adulthood or the sojourning fowl all returned from an extended Tennessee vacation, by the 1960s, wild turkeys were once again a common sight in Northern Alabama.
Turkey hunting became so engrained into the spirit and traditions of Alabama during the 20th century that, in the early 1980s, a bill for an Alabama Turkey Hunters Hall of Fame was introduced. Senator Frances Sister Strong endorsed support for the bill that would create the hall of fame and museum. Strong’s district was in southwestern Alabama, which is still considered one of the best turkey hunting spots in the nation. A proposed Turkey Hunters Hall of Fame Museum was of interest beyond Alabama. The New York Times even reported on the issue. Representative Strong told the newspaper, “In my district, you don’t mess with folk’s hunting and fishing.” The New York Times also delighted in telling readers that a fellow politician sardonically agreed to support the bill only if the museum included an annex dedicated to armadillos.
The armadillo annex was just a joke, and the Turkey Hunters Hall of Fame was written into law in 1986. Alabama Code § 41-9-830 stated that the Hall of Fame and Museum board would be composed of nine members appointed by the City of Linden. Linden was also to be the home of the museum. The old Marengo County Courthouse had stood empty and unused for nearly two decades by that time, and it was suggested as the perfect nest for the museum.
The nine members of the Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame board, tasked with raising funds for the museum through private donations, held bird calling contests boasting a grand prize of $500. The contests drew spectators from around the country for fourteen years. Unfortunately, the dream of an Alabama Turkey Hunters Hall of Fame never came to fruition. Act 2018-152 repealed the hall of fame, board, and museum during the Legislature’s regular session.
The calling contests of the short-lived Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame drew spectators from other states, and two hunting seasons ensure that hunters from around the world visit Alabama, making turkeys an important resource in developing and growing the state’s economy. Governors also creatively use turkey hunting to entice outside industry leaders to move to Alabama. The One-Shot Turkey Hunt was introduced in 2001 by Governor Siegelman. The hunt invites industry leaders, celebrities, wildlife and nature writers, and business leaders to Alabama to compete in a turkey hunt. The first person to take out a gobbler with one shot receives the grand prize. More importantly, it is a chance to show off Alabama and its natural resources to individuals that may be persuaded to move their business to the state or report favorably on the conditions in Alabama. Each participant in the One-Shot Turkey Hunt is paired with a skilled local guide, stays in a lodge or inn, and receives legendary Alabama hospitality throughout the event. The proceeds from this event are then given to charities or universities further helping the state of Alabama.
Whether bringing some lighthearted fun through a Thanksgiving official pardon or by boosting the economy through turkey hunts, our fowl friends remain a clutch cultural icon in Alabama. This year when you celebrate Thanksgiving don’t forget to raise a toast to Alabama turkeys!
Interested in finding more photos and information about turkeys in Alabama? Explore our online digitized collections here: ADAH Digital Collections Learn more about the ADAH photograph collections through this blog: Celebrating National Photography Month: Exploring the ADAH Photograph Collections and about the Governor Riley Collection through this blog: Governor Bob Riley’s Digital Photographs Now Live on Preservica.
ADAH Records Management Archivist, Hannah Marshall Bawden wrote this blog
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“Turkey Carnival Queen Selected at Uniontown.” Cherokee County Herald, October 9, 1940. https://www.newspapers.com/image/538396269/
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Rainer, David. Huntsville’s Jones Surpasses Turkey- Hunting Milestone. Outdoor Alabama. Retrieved from https://www.outdooralabama.com/articles/huntsvilles-jones-surpasses-turkey-hunting-milestone
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Wilson, Karah. “Turkey Trot set for Saturday in Collinsville.” Southern Torch. November 13, 2015. http://southerntorch.com/community/turkey-trot-set-for-saturday-in-collinsville/
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