For many, Thanksgiving is synonymous with turkey. We rarely
consider the history of our food products, but turkey is a
completely North American bird with a strong connection to
Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
At one time, Oregon produced 30% of the West Coast supply
of turkey. But, several years ago, the Oregon turkey industry--which,
at its height, produced nearly 3 million birds annually--ceased
to exist. This was due to a bankruptcy of Oregon's primary
turkey processor, brought about in part by a recall of about
70,000 birds just before Thanksgiving. While this signaled
the end of commercial turkey production in Oregon, a few small
producers continue to produce birds for local markets and
many Oregon customers.
The modern commercial turkey has its roots in Oregon, where
farmers played a dominant role in its development. Earliest
records show turkeys in Astoria in 1813, and that turkeys
were on many Oregon farms by 1846. Prior to the '20s, turkeys
were a farm sideline with the bronze turkey as the standard.
Many brought their birds to various shows for premium money
and to sell breeding stock. During this time, Ward Cockeram,
a turkey grower from Oakland, developed his "blackbirds"
for meat production. In addition, Oregon producers Herman
Odell and Joe Kupetz, as well as R.D. Mitchell from Washington,
also were selecting for body size.
Then, at the Portland International Livestock Show, Jesse
Throessell from Bri-tish Columbia showed his "Sheffield
bronze" turkeys. The Oregon and Washington growers were
impressed by these birds, bought stock, and bred it with their
It was the ingenuity of Oregon and Pacific Northwest turkey
producers in the 1920s and '30s that made the turkey industry
what it is today. Even though our Oregon turkey industry is
gone, the history of Oregon's influence on the industry nationwide
Origin of the turkey
The bird that we call the turkey is, basically, a North American
pheasant or grouse. It is native to the eastern and southeastern
United States and into Mexico. It is one of the only North
American native animals (certainly the only bird) to be domesticated
into a major-production agriculture animal. There are two
species, turkey and ocellated turkey--with the latter native
to the jungles of Mexico.
The U.S. produces about 280 million turkeys annually, with
consumption of about 18 pounds of turkey per person per year.
How did we get to where we are today in the turkey industry
from the wild game bird of the southern United States?
The Aztecs first domesticated the turkey in Mexico some time
before A.D. 700. In their conquest of the New World, Columbus
and the Spaniards found domestic turkeys in Central America
in the 1500s. In one of his later trips, Columbus was given
what was thought to be a turkey by native Hondurans in 1502.
However, the first confirmation that turkeys were taken to
Europe was in 1511, when they were introduced to Spain.
After nearly 100 years in Europe, domesticated turkeys sporting
their new colors were taken with settlers back to the New
World in the early 1600s. Evidences of domestic turkeys has
been found in Jamestown in 1607, and Massachusetts in 1629.
Since turkeys were native to the New World, and wild turkeys
existed near farms set up by the settlers, the native birds
crossbred with the domestic European varieties. The crosses
took on the color of the native eastern turkey (bronze), and
many were larger in size than the European varie-ties.
This is what graces our holiday tables and sandwiches today!
Written by James Hermes. Mr. Hermes is a poultry specialist
with the Oregon State University Extension services.
Statesman Journal newspaper, Business pages, Agriculture
column, November 11, 2001