Turkey is the traditional main course eaten by Americans on Thanksgiving Day, and the occupants of the White House have long celebrated this tradition. But unlike mere mortals who buy our turkeys at the grocery store, the first family has farms vying for the honor of providing turkeys for the White House.
Turkey Gift Tradition Goes Back to 1870s
While presidents prior to Ulysses S. Grant doubtless received Thanksgiving turkeys from admirers, a Rhode Island poultry farmer named Harold Vose was the first to make a custom of it. Vose sent President Grant “the noblest gobbler in all that little state” in 1873. With that gift, Vose began an annual tradition.
Vose did not always raise the Thanksgiving turkey but he was well known for his donation, so he attracted the attention of turkey men throughout the Northeast. He sometimes traveled to visit the farms he thought were raising promising birds. In addition, farmers from Connecticut and Rhode Island and environs arrived at Vose’s farm, offering to sell him the “perfect” bird for the White House meal. Vose carefully weighed and evaluated the birds, buying many of them. As the holiday neared, he chose the largest most perfect bird for that year.
Vose may have taken on the responsibility for promotional reasons or out of patriotism, and 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.
New Turkey Provider
By 1915 the source of the official turkey was new. That year it was 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 likely 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).
Other Turkeys and Birds Arrive, Too
Most years, however, the White House did not need to worry about having something for dinner. Other turkeys or game were delivered with great regularity. In 1904 The New York Times (11-23-1904) wrote that the 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.”
A glance through a newspaper of the early 1900s show articles that describe cabinet members arriving at the White House bearing the results of their weekend hunting trips. What better plan—bring your catch to someone else to prepare!
Coolidge Tries to Change Tradition
Grace and Calvin Coolidge were “animal” people, and they were distressed at the thought of receiving more birds than needed. For that reason, President Calvin Coolidge specified in 1923 (his first year in office) that no turkeys were to be given to him for Thanksgiving dinner.
He announced that he and Grace preferred to buy their own turkey to reduce waste. (The New York Times, 11-28-1923)
The president made no ruling on dessert, however. One admiring Washington chef sent to the White House a two-and-a-half foot wide pumpkin pie. The fellow enclosed a note saying that he would have baked a larger pie if he had been able to find a larger oven.
On the turkey front, Coolidge was fighting a losing battle. In 1924, birds for the White House continued to arrive. One of Coolidge’s aides reported that the table featured two turkey gobblers; each one weighing more than 30 pounds. The Coolidge White House also received two score quail, wild ducks, wild geese, more than a dozen rabbits, and a young buck deer. The New York Times wrote that this was the first time a deer had been sent for Thanksgiving.
Coolidges Save Thanksgiving Raccoon
The deer must have already been killed, or Grace Coolidge likely would have stopped it. One of the Coolidge pets—a raccoon soon named Rebecca—first arrived as a gift for Thanksgiving dinner. That was not happening under Grace Coolidge’s watch. Rebecca was quickly snatched from the hands of anyone on the kitchen staff. A pen was built around a tree as a home for Rebecca. The Coolidges acquired a companion for Rebecca, but Reuben soon moved out. Rebecca, however, was with them for quite some time.
In 1929 the Hoovers were well set for Thanksgiving dinner with the official turkey, but Washington Postmaster William M. Mooney wanted to add another. He killed an 18-pound turkey while hunting in the Shenandoah Valley; he brought it to the White House, and we assume Mooney was invited to stay for dinner.
Northwestern Turkey Growers Want a Turn
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. Since the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party, it was Governor Blood’s way of sending very special greetings to President Roosevelt.
National Turkey Federation Takes Over
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.
This year (2018), the turkeys being pardoned are from South Dakota, the same state as the current chairman of the Turkey Federation. While two of the turkeys will be treated royally and pardoned by the president, one would think the South Dakotans sent along one or two extra turkeys for the president’s holiday meal.