Mader: Raising Turkeys

Shelli Mader

Sometimes I like to romanticize the past — I guess I’ve watch too many episodes of “When Calls the Heart” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Since I was a kid I’ve dreamed about living in a time when it was cheap to live in the country and I could ride horses everywhere.

In reality though, life in the “good old days” was anything but romantic. My husband’s Grandma Eva grew up in the 1930s in Northeastern Wyoming. She lived in the country, but like many families during that time, her family was poor and had no electricity or running water in their house. What Grandma Eva calls the grasshopper years (1934–1936) were especially hard.

During that time, all but the best horses and cattle were sent to the railroad. Cowboys trailed them there since there were no roads or trucks to take them. The well-broke saddle and work horses from the area were taken to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where there was work for them. Grandma Eva got to keep one horse — a colt that was too young to travel with the other horses. She raised it on the bottle.

With nearly all of the cattle and horses gone, area families’ only cash crop was turkeys. Grandma Eva and her sibling spent hours a day looking for wild turkey nests. When they found one, they carefully stole the eggs and took them home to put them in their chickens’ nests.

“Chicken hens are more sensible to handle than turkeys but chickens do know when something is amiss,” Grandma Eva said. “To get them to take the turkey eggs we needed to find broody hens. Those were the hens that wanted to sit on a nest and clucked or pecked at you if you tried to take them off the nest. We had to carefully place turkey eggs under them. If they sensed something was up, they would sometimes quit sitting on their nest before the 28-day incubation period was up. If the chickens stopped sitting on the nest and the eggs got cold, they wouldn’t hatch.”

When it was time for the turkeys to hatch, the turkey chicks used the built-in hook on their beaks to break out of the shell.

“The hook makes a perfect circle on the shell so that the chick can squeeze out,” Eva said. “One can never help a chick break out of the shell because it will kill the chick. It was hard to watch the turkeys break out of the shells. It sometimes took a long time for them to peck out of the shell and we wanted to help. One time my mother did help a chick and the “help” she offered made the turkey chick die.”

After the turkeys hatched, Grandma Eva had to teach them how to eat.

“Since we were raising the turkeys without a hen, the first thing we had to do was dip their beaks in water to teach them to drink,” she said. “Then we had to feed them. I don’t know if there was chicken food that you could buy at the time or not — but we didn’t have any. So, we had to make our own food. We started them on oatmeal and homemade cottage cheese. As they got older, their diet consisted mostly of grasshoppers.”

Taking care of the turkeys was a big job, and Grandma Eva admits that she sometimes whined about the work.

“There were so many coyotes in the area that when we turned the turkeys out we kids had to stay with the turkeys and keep them in a bunch. It was called “hoppering the turkeys” and it wasn’t much fun.

Grandma Eva spent much of her summers taking care of the turkeys. When late fall came, local families got together for the processing ­— in an event that was much like a branding. Grandma Eva has some good, and not so good memories of those days on the ranch… To be continued. ❖