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A Tahoe turkey tale

Don Lane

In the isolated settlements of the early West it was a minor miracle when you could put a turkey on your plate during Thanksgiving or Christmas. Long before the days of refrigerated trucks, the only way to transport a flock of turkeys was to herd them just like sheep across the mountains to markets and railheads that were sometimes hundreds of miles away. And however unlikely, one of these turkey drives left us with a tale to be told.

It began in Placerville in the 1860s, where a young man by the name of Henry Clay Hooker had decided to risk everything he had to bring a flock of turkeys over the Sierras to Carson City, where there weren’t any and where he knew people would pay almost any price for the pleasure of having a holiday turkey dinner. So he purchased a flock of 500 birds for $1.50 each and prepared them for the 100-mile turkey drive by walking them through a puddle of warm tar, and then through some sand, which coated their feet to help protect them from the snow-covered rocks during the journey. With that done, he headed off cross country for Lake Tahoe. The journey was slow and tedious because the turkeys were excitable and since their wings weren’t clipped in those days, they’d fly off whenever something spooked them. But Hooker and his dogs would patiently gather them together and continue trudging toward the lake.

He was doing fairly well until he suddenly came up on a shear cliff that was hundreds of feet high. Unfortunately, his dogs didn’t know about the cliff, and kept nipping at the tails of the turkeys at the back end of the flock, trying to drive them forward, and they did – right over the cliff. All 500 of them.

Well, Hooker sat down in a daze … his flock was gone … and he just knew he was ruined. Heartsick, he worked his way down to the bottom of the cliff. But when he was near the bottom, he heard a familiar sound – a gobble. First one, then a whole chorus of them. His entire flock was simply standing around, waiting for him to show up. Hooker then realized that when they went over the cliff they’d simply stuck out their wings and glided down to the bottom, and with a little corn and herding, he had them all back together again and on their way to Carson City, where the happy citizens eagerly paid him $5 a head for his flock – and a wonderful turkey dinner. And now that you’ve heard this tale, you can honestly say that at one time long ago, turkeys used to walk through the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Have a good day.


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