By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
When the earliest gold miners came to this area hoping to strike it rich some quickly realized that feeding all those miners might pay off better and more reliably than actual mining. Stores opened and Groveland became home to farms and ranches to supply the needs of miners and arriving families. Sheep being driven from the Central Valley to high country for pasturage were among the first to arrive. Cattle and hog ranches were developed all around Groveland by families claiming their 160 homestead acres.
Although some early settlers raised small flocks of turkeys for their own needs, large scale turkey ranching arrived long after the Gold Rush. In the late 1940s - 1950s attempts at breeding a larger breasted turkey began. Promotion of its varied use increased and so did production. In early turkey farming the birds were herded to market on foot. A transcript in our museum archives of a 1976 oral interview with Elton Munn, who grew up in Moccasin, tells about a farmer herding a large flock of turkeys down Shaw’s Flat Road to take them to market. The flock, frightened by something at the top, got away from their herders, scattering everywhere on the steep Kelley's Grade. Regaining the herd took several days.
Large-scale Turkey Ranching became popular in Groveland in the 1950s. Ranchers provided shelter, food and water for the turkeys. Heated brooders kept the eggs at a constant temperature until they hatched and protected young poults until they were 6 - 8 weeks old, fully feathered and ready to release into the fields or pen areas. Some ranchers had mechanical pluckers. The turkeys were caught by hand from the free range fields and loaded onto trucks to ship to market.
Dave Gookin relates his memories of being one of three teenage boys working in the 1950s on one of the area's largest turkey ranches at Smith Station. The ranch had been owned by Bob Ehert who had successfully raised several thousand birds each year for many years. It was sold to a newcomer who knew little about raising turkeys and neither did the boys. In moving the turkeys from the brooders to open range, they escaped from the area the boys were attempting to hold them in. Many got trapped in gullies or caught in fencing and died. To make matters worse, a low flying plane stampeded a large number of them into the forest. Attempts to round up the birds were not were very successful. The new owner soon went out of business and Dave never received his paycheck.
Gookin also tells us, “At it’s zenith there were probably over a dozen turkey ranches on the Hill raising several thousand birds.” Ranches existed in Big Oak Flat, Deer Flat, Groveland, Ferretti Road area, off Clements Rd at the Graham Ranch, and at Second Garrote and Smith Station.
Research informs us that Robert and Aline Wedel who ran a ranch in Groveland in the late 1950s to early 1960s sued the Automatic Poultry Feeder Company in 1958 for damages alleging that failure of machinery caused the death of several thousand of his turkeys.
Local turkey ranches suddenly ceased to exist by about 1960. Large regional turkey farms, raising the specially bred broad-breasted turkeys took their place. Nearby Diestal Turkey Ranch was established in 1950, about the same time our area local ranches were raising turkeys. By successfully changing with the times they are still in business today. Statistics tell us that the US produced 4.19 billion pounds of turkey and California raised about 8 million birds in 2021.
According to the on-line article The Evolution of Turkey Farming, the minimum wage in 1950 was 75 cents an hour and turkeys were selling for about 49 cents per pound. The cost for a twenty pound bird was the inflationary equivalent of about $95 in today's world. No wonder having that Golden Bird on the holiday table became so special!
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p.