There is little doubt that wild turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving feast. Wild turkeys sustained early Yorktown area families for two and a half centuries before disappearing almost all together by 1920. Fifty years later, however, they had made a comeback.
While wild turkeys were scarce in Yorktown, the Thanksgiving bird was replaced, part of that time, with raised turkeys from the Witzel Turkey Farm on Stoney Street (see photo). The Witzels purchased their historic home and land in 1945 and in 1950 secured a building permit from the town to build a coop to house turkeys. They remained in the business until the late 1970's.
Turkeys have a reputation for being pretty dumb, mainly due to the inbreeding that has occurred as a result of turkey farming, but the wild one is a bird of another feather. In fact, it's their wiley ways, plus conservation efforts, which have enabled them to return in such numbers after extensive hunting nearly wiped them out in this area. Hunters must now buy a permit to hunt them and are only allowed two males (bearded) "gobblers" in the spring and two of either sex in the fall.
Some interesting facts from the "N.Y.S. Hunting and Trapping Regulations Guide" on distinguishing hens and gobblers: "Only bearded wild turkeys may be taken throughout the spring season..." "Yes, some hens do have beards, but they represent less than 5% of the female population. " (I wonder if they've tried waxing.) "Gobblers have a red, white and blue head, (How about a turkey at your next July 4th barbecue?), one-half inch or longer spurs (you country western fans should appreciate that one), and strut with tail fan and wing droop." Kind of hard to miss!
Another bit of information: "You do not need to save and send in turkey legs in the spring." (Good thing, too, 'cause the drumstick is the best part!) However, in the fall you must "Save one leg from each turkey you take. Return it in the leg envelope you will receive. " (A holiday bonus for DEC workers?)
And some "Turkey Hunter Safety: Never wear turkey colors - red, white or blue. Use turkey calls properly - never to signal other hunters..." "If you hear a turkey calling... TALK..." (?) "If you see another hunter... DON'T MOVE! Speak up! Say Don't Shoot"' (Fortunately, our survival doesn't rest on our hunting skills.)
In the town of Yorktown there were 94 turkey permits sold in the 96-97 season, 91 in 97-98 and so far for August and September of the 98-99 season there were already 83 permits sold.
So, this year when you give thanks, add the turkey farmer to your list I know the ol' wild and wiley turkey does!
Written by Linda L. Kiederer
Photo courtesy of the Town Clerk's Office
The Yorktown Historical Society updates the home page every month with seasonally appropriate articles and information. Click here to read some of our past issues.