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The Presidential Turkey Pardon

The Presidential Turkey Pardon

turkey pardon
President Obama and Sasha with Popcorn, 2013
Getty Images, Alex Wong

While we think of the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey as a long-standing tradition, it has actually been a relatively short and an erratic one.

Acquiring the official turkey, however, follows a much longer and steadier tradition.

The Source of the Official Turkey

In 1873, Harold Vose, a Rhode Island poultry farmer, decided to send President Grant “the noblest gobbler in all that little state,” according to a 2011 article on the website, www.White House.gov.  While Vose may have taken on the responsibility for promotional reasons or out of patriotism, his commitment to providing the official White House turkey did not flag.  Vose’s farm is cited as the source of the official White House turkey through 1913. That December Vose died, bringing to an end the tradition of the official turkey coming from Rhode Island. 

By 1915 the source of the official turkey had changed.  This year it turkey pardonwas provided by  the House of Representatives clerk, South Trimble.   Trimble was from Lexington, Kentucky, but during the summer of 1915, he reportedly visited a relative’s farm in Oregon and hand-picked the turkey that was to be raised for the White House. Given the state of refrigeration at that time, the bird must have made the cross-country train trip while still alive.

In 1917, Trimble was still sending the White House the official turkey but that year it was coming from a farm in Kentucky.  The turkey had been specially raised for the White House and was fattened on a diet of acorns and chestnuts.  However, train congestion caused a delay in delivery and, as The New York Times described, the turkey was delivered “at the eleventh hour” after many days’ traveling.  (The New York Times, 11-29-17).

But most years, the White House wouldn’t need to have worried… there have almost always been other turkeys or game being delivered.  In 1904 The New York Times (11-23-1904) wrote that turkey pardonthe official turkey (no doubt the Vose turkey at this time) was the only bird that would be served at the President’s table on Thanksgiving but that there were many other offerings sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  “These included turkeys, game birds in season, and other offerings appropriate to the day and occasion.”

In 1929 the Hoovers were well set for Thanksgiving dinner with the official turkey, but that year Washington Postmaster William M. Mooney had gone hunting in the Shenandoah Valley. He shot and killed an 18-pound turkey which he presented to the White House.  (The New York Times, 11-24-29)

In 1936 we have a new source of the official turkey—this time the Northwestern Turkey growers Association with members in fourteen states.  The turkey that was deemed the king of turkeys for the year was raised by Ed Spaulding of Provo, Utah.  The Utah Governor Henry H. Blood, a Democrat, had a donkey crate created for the turkey’s trip.  As the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party, it was Governor Blood’s way of sending very special greetings to President Roosevelt.

By 1947, the National Turkey Federation took on the responsibility of being the official supplier of the White House turkey for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We can assume that “back-up turkeys” continued to be delivered to the White House.

The Presidential Turkey Pardon

This brings us to the now heavily publicized custom of the turkey-pardoning.

President Lincoln was the first president to proclaim Thanksgiving

turkey pardon
President Bush pardoning the turkey
Getty Images

an American holiday, but he may have also been the first to pardon a turkey.  The story goes that the Lincolns’ son, Tad, begged his father to write a presidential pardon for what would have been the Lincolns’ Christmas dinner.

If this father-son conversation took place, then we can be assured that the turkey was spared. Lincoln doted on his sons, and they usually got their way.  Tad was said to have named the turkey Jack and taught the bird to follow him around the White House grounds (The New York Times, 11-27-2013).

During the twentieth century, a custom arose for the president to receive the official turkey in some type of ceremony. (If businesses have donated a gift, they doubtless wanted the publicity.)  This ceremony seems to have evolved into the turkey pardoning.  In 1963 the White House website writes that President Kennedy was said to have opted to send the turkey received from the National Turkey Federation back to the farm where it came from. Trusting that this date is correct, he must have done so just days before he and the First Lady departed for Dallas.

When Nixon came into the White House, he participated in the traditional ceremony of receiving the turkey, but then he sent those turkeys off to a petting zoo. However there was no official pardon given.

The tradition of the official pardon was started by President George H.W. Bush.  On November 14, 1989, he announced that the bird “had been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”  The turkey went off to live on a farm in Virginia.

Disney and the Turkey Pardon

In 2005 the National Turkey Federation was approached by the Walt Disney Company. Disneyland was celebrating its 50th anniversary that year, and the company pitched to the Turkey Federation the idea of taking the pardoned turkeys to Disneyland to serve as grand marshals of the Disneyland parade.  After that time they would live in an enclosure in Frontierland near Santa’s Reindeer roundup.

The Federation thought the Disney plan was excellent. Disney provided first class tickets on United for the two turkeys as well as some of the Federation executives. Reports were that the turkeys really did travel in the first class cabin, albeit in cages.  No one would have complained because the rest of the cabin passengers were either Disney or Turkey Federation executives.  The connection with Disney lasted until 2009, and the birds were either sent to Disneyland or Disney World.

Since that time, the turkeys have been spared such long trips. They are sent to farms closer to Washington. However, because the birds are bred to be eaten, they are generally overweight and do not necessarily last much more than a year after their pardon.   (Last year’s pardoned turkey, Popcorn, died in mid-November this year. His cohort, Caramel is said to have lost weight and is doing fine.

One year President Obama threatened to eat the awaiting turkeys awaiting pardon, but Malia and Sasha spoke up before the turkeys were on their way to the kitchen.  Obama also said, “I’m told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their birds. You can’t fault them for that; that’s a good-looking bird.”

Here’s a short video of President Obama and his daughters pardoning Popcorn and Caramel in 2013.






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