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King Turkey Day: Through the years

Nobles County Historical Society Director Sally Zuehlke poses with a display of King Turkey Day buttons, along with information detailing the collection and a list of the annual buttons missing from the display. Donations of buttons are sought for several years, especially recent years. JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE

WORTHINGTON -- From photographs to buttons and King Turkey Day beer cans to 10K shirts, the Nobles County Historical Society Museum in the lower level of Worthington's War Memorial Building is filled with interesting artifacts dating back to the very first King Turkey Day celebration 74 years ago.

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Long hidden in archives or borrowed from local KTD history buffs, the pieces are now on display for the viewing public to enjoy. The History of King Turkey Day exhibit will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, as well as during regular museum hours -- noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday -- through the end of October.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Worthington native Claire Bents, who completed an internship with the NCHS this summer, thanks to a Minnesota Historical Society grant. Throughout the summer, she worked to catalog the society's history files, including the stories and photographs of King Turkey Day.

"There were two filing cabinets full of newspaper clippings," Bents said. "I catalogued that and had a little bit of time left."

It was then that she suggested to NCHS Director Sally Zuehlke that a King Turkey Day exhibit be created.

"It's such a crucial part of Worthington's history," Bents said.

In her second year of college at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Bents is pursuing a history-focused career with her major in social studies education. She said spending time with the Nobles County Historical Society archives this summer helped her to understand her roots.

"I loved reading about all of the different speakers we used to have," she said. "I love learning all of the stuff about Nobles County's history. We really don't have an opportunity to learn about it. It really made me appreciate where I come from. So many interesting things have happened in our history."

Among her notable discoveries, Bents found that former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey made no less than 16 appearances at Worthington's King Turkey Day. Former President Richard Nixon made an appearance a few years before he was elected, and Lyndon B. Johnson campaigned at King Turkey Day while he was a vice presidential candidate teamed with John F. Kennedy.

"We saw all of these politicians pretty much at the beginning of their careers," Bents said.

A display featuring photographs and campaign materials from the political figures was a must in the KTD display, as their appearance likely drew more visitors to the event than the actual turkeys at the center of the festival's focus.

Still, the turkeys have their own attention in the display, including photographs of the early years, when upwards of 1,000 turkeys strutted down 10th Street. Back then, the festival was in the middle of the week, causing downtown businesses to close up shop to watch the commotion.

Details one exhibit: "The booming poultry industry of the 1920s led to the emergence of two processing plants in Worthington -- J.C. Boote's Hatchery and Produce, and E.O. Olson's Worthmore Creamery."

It was while Olson was travelling through Texas that he came upon Cuero's Turkeyfest, complete with turkeys parading down the street. He brought the idea back to Worthington, and thus, King Turkey Day was established.

While there are a few pieces of early KTD memorabilia in the display, Zuehlke said much of the collection dates to the 1950s and 1960s. The years least represented, ironically, are the more recent years.

"We want to extend our collection of photos," Bents said. "They all end by about 1992 or 1993. My entire lifetime of photos isn't there. I don't know what happened there that we stopped getting photos, but we'll take those (donations)."

She's also seeking any other KTD-related donations, including the special King Turkey Day beer produced by the August Schell Brewery.

"We have a six-pack of Turkey Day beer on loan," Bents said, adding that several photographs were borrowed as well for the exhibit.

One display in the museum includes many of the King Turkey Day buttons. The button has been an annual tradition since it was introduced in 1941, with a few exceptions. In 1943, a paper button was worn due to the shortage of metal in World War II. In 1944 and 1945, when KTD festivities were cancelled due to the war, there were no buttons made; and in 1948, a King Turkey Day patch and scarf took the place of the button. Since 1949, a button has been offered each year.

Like the memorabilia, the more recent years of KTD are also missing from the button display. The Historical Society has identified a list of years for which they need buttons, and if anyone is interested in donating theirs for the exhibit, Bents said they would be appreciated.

"We are certainly looking to add to our collection," she added.

On loan for the exhibit is a quilt that includes several KTD 10K T-shirts. As for the photos, the NCHS is hoping people will recognize those captured in the images, so they can be identified in the society's archives.

Bents will be on hand for Saturday's exhibit debut, and she's hoping to see "lots of people come down." The museum, located in the basement of the library, is handicap-accessible.

"People go to the fun walk and the pancake feed and they're looking for something to do downtown," Bents said. "That will give them time to come and see some of the stuff that we've got."

She's excited to see former residents and visitors return to Worthington Saturday for King Turkey Day.

"It brings people together," she said. "It's an opportunity to reconnect. It's so nice to have a weekend that we can come back to our roots and connect with our community."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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