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THE PROUD BIRD : The Bronze Age

November 20, 1994|SCHUYLER INGLE

I read somewhere that the last flock of American Bronze turkeys was kept by the poultry science department at Oregon State University. It turns out that that isn't quite true, certainly not in the sense implied by the story--that when the flock was gone, so too would be the bird upon which Thanksgiving had been built. And it turns out that it isn't quite true that OSU had the last American Bronze flock because what with budget cuts and all, the school sold the flock: 25 hens and 10 toms. The turkeys they now keep have unique genetic weaknesses, such as inherited disorders or distinct plumage.

"If you want to see the American Bronze," I was told by the OSU turkey specialist, Dr. Savage, whose name is Tom, "get in touch with the Wishards in Prairie City. They have been raising them for 45 years. And one other thing . . . no, two. . . .

"The turkey is a very personable and intelligent bird, much more so than the chicken, say, or the Japanese quail. And it does not drown itself looking up into rain."


Prairie City, a small farming and lumber mill town east of John Day in east-central Oregon, is the home of Wish Poultry and the Wishard Family who keep the last great flock of American Bronze turkeys to be found in the nation. The American Bronze is the bird that made Thanksgiving what it is today, and while it is far from endangered, its numbers have dwindled to a pathetic low in the face of the industrialization of the turkey as a meat-producing animal. In the passing of the American Bronze can be found the gradual erosion of a style of American farming, the loss of the barnyard and the rise of the meat factory. If Thanksgiving has a flavor, we are no doubt losing that as well.

I called ahead before driving over. Marc Wishard described a narrow window of convenience through which he might be able to meet a writer interested in turkeys. The chicken slaughter was on one side, the opening of elk hunting season on the other. I arrived in between on a clear, warm Thursday morning. The Wishard place can be found behind the Prairie City High School gymnasium: a small house, a tangle of outbuildings, penned-in pigs, the big holding pen where the turkeys are brought in from the range for slaughter and where the breeding flock over winters. The sign at the entry read:

Hard Eye Ball Information

For Your Reaction

No Drugs Used

Natural, Organic, Real Safe, Fresh Fertile Eggs, Golden Fryers, Bronze Turkeys and Convenient Items

Nothing To Harm The Body

Guilty of Innocense (SIC)

Grow Your Own



Honest Show Biz

"Hoo Boy"

Hang in There

No T.V. 60 Minute Birds, sorry

"Hardly any more Bronzes growed," Mark Wishard said, fixing me with a baleful stare across the small kitchen table. His father had started the turkey farm 45 years before. Mark, who looked to be in his early, road-weary 40s, had been a long-distance truck driver for 15 years and had come home to help his younger brother, Bard, with the business after the accidental death of their father four years before.


"That power line hadn't fallen on him, he'd still be running the place and you'd be talkin' to him, not me," Mark said. "We used to grow 30,000 turkeys a year. All natural. All naturally bred. Now we raise 2,500 and even that will drop now that the mill closed."

So much of our national Thanksgiving meal identity comes to us from across the century, the grandmothers in their aprons lifting the roast turkeys from coal-burning ovens in family farm kitchens. Those birds grew up in much the same way as the American Bronze turkeys raised by Wish Poultry, and presumably tasted the same.

Before poultry grower co-ops were organized, farmers arranged their own markets, delivering carefully plucked birds with heads and viscera intact. During the Depression when co-operative marketing organizations took hold, turkey-killing crews, odd men at best, traveled from farm to farm and slaughtered the birds and ruffed the feathers, plucking the larger body and wing feathers that are favored by arrow makers to this day. A crew of women would then come in and pin, or finish plucking the carcass for the growers.


The birds were not eviscerated, but were cooled down and delivered to a shipping station where they were graded, weighed and packed for shipping. Such was the "New York dressed" turkey. Evisceration was a housewife chore, an intimacy with where food comes from lost on the modern cook. As the farm changes, as the bird changes, as our relationship to the turkey changes, so too must Thanksgiving change.

The turkey the Pilgrims raised once they established their colony came to them out of domestic Mexican stock, with roots in wild Mexican stock. Of the wild turkey, there are five major varieties, the range of one of which extended at the time of the Pilgrims into New England. The Pilgrims brought over turkeys from England such as the Norfolk Black, a variety that still exists, and crossed them with wild turkeys.

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