Gobble! Gobble! Turkey Farming in Clark County

In the 1960s, Clark County was famous for its turkey farms—the “Turkey Capital of Kentucky.” Clare recalls that when she and her broth­er Barry were kids, they used to ride their bikes out Waterworks Road.  When they came to the Browning turkey farm, just for fun they would yell, “Gobble! Gobble!” and the response would come back “Gobble! Gobble!” from thou­sands of turkeys.  Ah, noth­ing like those good olé days.

When Perry Browning start­ed in busi­ness in Winchester he oper­at­ed a coal yard, a small chick­en hatch­ery, and sold ani­mal feed on Jefferson Street.  In 1938 he began rais­ing turkeys for the Thanksgiving mar­ket.  In 1941 Clark County held its first turkey farm tour; 125 per­sons vis­it­ed the farms of Charles Berryman on Wades Mill Road, Shelby Harris on White-Conkwright Road, and Perry Browning on Waterworks Road. 

When Eugene Culton, coun­ty agent, led the third annu­al tour in 1943, sev­en farms were vis­it­ed:  Perry Browning, the largest with 6,500 birds; Charles Berryman; Henry Berryman; Shelby Harris; James Harris; and Milt Creech.  These farms togeth­er pro­duced more than 13,000 turkeys.

By the year 1944 turkey rais­ing had become big busi­ness in Clark County.  The pro­duc­tion of turkeys, turkey eggs and poults was val­ued at $250,000 a year, exceed­ing that of reg­is­tered Angus cat­tle (worth $210,000) and pure-bred Southdown sheep (about $200,000).  That September pro­duc­ers formed the Clark County Turkey Growers Association.  Members includ­ed Browning, 15,500 birds; the Berrymans, 4,500; Neal, 1,200; Charlotte Pursley, 1,000; Shelby Harris, 850; James H. Harris, 700; Mrs. Justice Johnson, 600; Eugene Culton, 350; Elmer Barker, Mrs. Calloway White and Mrs. Elmer Duncan, 200 each.  That year the turkey field day attract­ed 300 per­sons rep­re­sent­ing 8 states and 20 Kentucky counties. 

It may seem a lit­tle sur­pris­ing to see the name of four women on the list of turkey grow­ers.  These were the war years and farm wives often helped sup­ple­ment their fam­i­lies’ income.  In her book Of Family and Place, the late Joan Mayer described her mother’s, Charlotte Pursley’s, expe­ri­ence rais­ing turkeys.  Her hus­band, Fauntleroy, had built her a small turkey house and she brought her first batch of chicks home. 

“Trying to get all the babies to eat was a mad­den­ing, frus­trat­ing task.  Mom began to stress out.  She had hun­dreds of baby turkeys rush­ing about the build­ing in a state of pan­ic, refus­ing to eat.  After an hour or more of try­ing to hold one and then anoth­er up to their ‘plate of food’ with­out suc­cess, she had visions of a huge herd of baby turkeys lying hud­dled around the saw­dust floor in heaps, hav­ing died of star­va­tion in her brand-new brooder-house.

“She decid­ed to call Daddy’s cousin Perry Browning, nation­al­ly rec­og­nized as one of this country’s largest pro­duc­er of turkeys.  He gave Mom sev­er­al sug­ges­tions on how to rem­e­dy the prob­lem.”  She imme­di­ate­ly head­ed to town.  “On her return, she took from her car a large, lumpy sack and car­ried it into the build­ing.  Later, she was again hold­ing a baby chick over the long met­al food trough filled with the sandy look­ing food.  Only now, the troughs also con­tained numer­ous, bright­ly col­ored ‘play­ing mar­bles’ which she had bought at the Winchester Ten- Cent Store and had scat­tered on top of the feed.”  The chicks imme­di­ate­ly began to peck at the mar­bles, pick­ing up some grains of food as they did.  “This was the rou­tine Mom went through every spring with each new brood of turkey chicks, teach­ing them to ‘play mar­bles’ and eat at the same time.  She was a hard-work­ing, dili­gent turkey pro­duc­er [and] she made a prof­it from her enterprise.”

In 1944 Browning’s 15,500 turkeys ranged over 250 acres of grass­land.  Voracious eaters, they con­sumed almost 6 tons of feed—corn, when mash and oats—daily, and drank about 5,000 gal­lons of water every twen­ty-four hours.  The farm had 50 grain bins, 1,200 open feed­ers, 200 roosts, and 15 water­ing tanks.  The birds aver­aged 22 to 25 pounds when sold.  Two armed guards watched the roosts at night to dis­suade thieves and varmints.  Eggs col­lect­ed from the hens were tak­en to his hatch­ery in Winchester to pro­duce new poults to raise.

Browning’s oper­a­tions soon need­ed more land to raise his turkeys.  In addi­tion to his main farm on Waterworks Road, he began rais­ing turkeys on Muddy Creek Road two miles from Winchester and at the Smith farm (now Stoney Brook sub­di­vi­sion) on Boonesborough Road three miles south of town.

In this November 1954 photo, President Eisenhower (left) is shown feeding a cranberry to the 43-pound turkey presented to him by Perry Browning (right), president of the National Turkey Federation. The bird was chosen from over 100,000 at Browning’s farm. (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)
In this November 1954 pho­to, President Eisenhower (left) is shown feed­ing a cran­ber­ry to the 43-pound turkey pre­sent­ed to him by Perry Browning (right), pres­i­dent of the National Turkey Federation. The bird was cho­sen from over 100,000 at Browning’s farm. (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)

In 1954 Browning built a new turkey pro­cess­ing and stor­age plant beside his hatch­ery on North Maple Street (on the west side between Washington and Broadway).  The 20,000 square foot facil­i­ty employed 100 per­sons and processed 3,000 toms and 4,000 hens per shift.  He also built a feed mill to process all the grain con­sumed by his birds.  By that time, Browning was the larg­er turkey grow­er in the state and had been elect­ed pres­i­dent of the National Turkey Federation.  That November he trav­eled to Washington, DC, with wife Isa and daugh­ter Dixie to present a turkey to President Eisenhower.

That year, the state pro­duced 312,000 heavy-breast­ed bronze turkeys.  Although Kentucky ranked 29th in U.S. turkey pro­duc­tion, Browning was one of the largest indi­vid­ual grow­ers in the coun­try.  While most turkeys were grown for the Thanksgiving and Christmas sea­son, Browning worked hard to pro­mote the meat as year-round fare.

To be con­tin­ued . . .

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