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Worthington 150: Turkey Day origin was frantic crowd on court square fighting for live turkeys

It was a noisy, hilarious and potentially dangerous scene. But the merchants of 1934 declared it a huge success.

Chasing turkeys
Crowds gather to watch the Great Gobbler Gallop down 10th street in downtown Worthington.
File photo
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WORTHINGTON — Picture the courthouse square on a December day with hundreds of outstretched hands reaching skyward. Suddenly the air was filled with 100 flying turkeys and guinea hens which had been dropped from the top of the courthouse tower.

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As the birds neared the earth, the crowd of 3,000 pushed and shoved. A cheer went up as two of the frightened birds put on a sudden burst of speed. One landed on the roof of a building across the street. Another landed in a store awning that was soon torn to shreds. Still another landed in a tree. Several boys tried to scramble up the tree. Others tossed snowballs at the turkey.

It was a noisy, hilarious and potentially dangerous scene. But the merchants of 1934 declared it a huge success. It was their best day’s business yet.

Long before the first King Turkey Day was celebrated in 1939, this was the sort of Turkey Day our town observed, along with a Chick Day and a Rooster Day.

Enticing a big crowd to town for Christmas shopping was the purpose of the Goodwill Turkey Scramble, as it was sometimes called. Catch a turkey and you had yourself a free Christmas dinner.

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Ready to race
Paycheck and Ruby Begonia race team members get ready to chase their birds down 10th Street in one of the early days of the Great Gobbler Gallop.
File photo

As the crowds grew, so did the possibility of accidents and injuries; turkeys are skittish and unpredictable at best. People were serious about wanting to catch one, to say the least.

In 1938, the merchants sent balloons aloft containing slips for free turkeys instead of the real thing. Even this proved potentially dangerous. Some of the balloons blew out on Lake Okabena. Four boys fell through the ice chasing them.

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Chick Day in May was a big spring promotion sponsored by the Civic and Commerce association in the 1930’s. For every dollar that a shopper spent in Worthington that day, he received a coupon which could be traded for three (two after 1939) baby chicks at the Worthington Creamery or Boote’s Hatchery.

The limit for a single shopper was eventually set at 150 chicks for $50 spent. Many farm wives did their major shopping on Chick Day and thus stayed in the chicken business.

The chicks in 1937 were worth eight cents each, so little profit was realized for participating merchants. The promotion was considered a good way to extend Wortington’s trade territory, however.

Sometimes Worthington had a “Swap the Rooster Day,” too, when farmers were urged to rid their flocks of surplus males.

To round up the barnyard alarm clocks, the Creamery and Boote’s Hatchery offered a premium above-market price for the birds. Merchants gave extra bonuses if the special rooster checks were spent in Worthington.

More than 20,000 pounds of chanticleers were snatched from flocks one Rooster Day. Anything for some extra cash.

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So even before Turkey Day, it was a wing-ding of a town.

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