The story of a Holiday turkey drive not to be forgotten

Original watercolor by Sunset Beach artist Bill Anderson. Courtesy photo

The California State Library selected my dad’s Pulitzer Prize nominated book, “Old West Christmas-Tales With a Twist” as their “Book of the Week” in 2017. It features a chapter, “Get Along Little Turkeys,” that is my favorite and the favorite of several Seal & Sunset Beach locals, who said they read it to their families every Holiday Season.

It’s illustrated by Sunset Beach Artist Bill Anderson and features 500 Turkeys (which makes me think of Thanksgiving). But it actually tells the incredible and unique true tale of a “Turkey Drive” during the Sierra Holidays, 154 years ago. Now, I’ve heard of Cattle Drives but never a Turkey Drive like this, which made a creative, chance-taking, suffering Californian, very successful.

A sampling of comments from locals:

“My family pulls out his Old West Christmas Book every year as we enter the season. It’s so interesting, well-written & illustrated. I love how it’s easy-to-read & interweaves fascinating history with whimsical artwork. ‘Get Along Little Turkeys,’ is the perfect way to kick off the Holiday Season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I’d recommend this book to every history buff, family and art enthusiast!” said Dawn McCormack of Sunset Beach.

“’Get Along Little Turkeys’ draws the reader into the Old West and its hardships, while also reminding us of the toughness, character and resourcefulness of those who endured those hardships. The story of driving turkeys over the Sierra Nevada is very intriguing and whimsical and concludes with a happy outcome, leaving a smile on the face of the reader–which is the normal reaction when reading any of Craig’s great stories.,” said Huntington Beach City Councilman Patrick Brenden.

“For me it’s mind blowing, trying to picture how this determined guy got all those turkeys over the mountains. I have driven from Placerville to Carson City, and it is a long drive….I can’t imagine trying to coax 500 turkeys that distance!” said William Anselmo, a Sunset Beach Actor.

“This great country of ours is built on the ‘can-do’ attitude of people like Henry Clay Hooker, who found a need and filled it. We all can learn a lot from this. I enjoy reading this story to my family and friends,” said Helmut Bjorkman of Sunset Beach.

To see a copy of the award-winning book, “Old West Christmas,” visit Main Street Mercantile, (In the back of Brita’s Old Town Gardens), 223 1/2 Main St., Seal Beach (from 9am to 5pm Monday to Sunday) or  Anderson Art Gallery, 16812  Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach (opens at 1 p.m., Friday/Saturday/Sunday)

‘Get Along Little Turkey’ 

By Craig MacDonald

Miners and townspeople in Carson City, Nevada were ecstatic to get a most unique holiday gift from California in December of 1866—turkeys for dinner!

Turkeys were reportedly nonexistent in the Carson City area east of the Sierra and the hungry folks would pay anything to get the delicious holiday delicacy. But how turkeys got there in the first place is an incredible story.

It all started with Henry C. Hooker, a New Hampshire native, who came west to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. When he got to Hangtown (now known as Placerville, off Highway 50) in 1853, Hooker figured out that a business selling hardware and other merchandise to the gold-seekers might itself turn into gold. Indeed it did!

His hardware business flourished and he also started purchasing cattle and driving them over the Sierra to Carson City to sell for top prices. Life was good until a devastating fire burned down much of Hangtown, including Hooker’s hardware business and hidden money. The clever entrepreneur again figured out a much-needed niche and decided to fill it. He knew turkeys were not available around Carson City, and with the holidays approaching, if he could somehow get the feathered critters to Nevada, he might hit the jackpot. Hungry miners and others would give anything for a delicious change from sourdough and bacon.

With all he had left, Hooker purchased 500 turkeys for $1.50 each, hired a helper, got two dogs to help herd the animals, and began one of the oddest events in Western History—a Turkey Drive!

The distance between Hangtown and Carson City was more than 60 miles of rugged mountain terrain. To complicate matters, portions of the trip would be over a snow-covered region of the Sierra. Hooker had the turkeys walk through warm tar, then sand, to give them protection while making the journey through the snow.

It must have been quite a sight to see two men, two dogs and 500 turkeys leave Hangtown amongst sneers and laughter from some who thought the ludicrous idea was doomed from the start. But Hooker was not one to give up, even though the turkeys usually poked along as they headed east toward the Summit. Wrote one scribe in jest: The dogs hardly panted and Hooker’s horse even put on weight. Camp was made in the evening whenever the turkeys decided to stop. The little critters roosted on the ground.”

Although difficult to control at times, the turkey herd made it up to the Sierra Summit and then began the treacherous trip down. At one point, over enthusiastic barking dogs caused them to stampede—taking flight over a ledge, causing a horrified Hooker to later recount: I had the most indescribable feeling of my whole life…Now my only earthly possessions were lost!”

But strangely enough, after the turkeys landed below, instead of scattering in different directions, they cackled to each other and miraculously reassembled. Hooker and his crew made their way down the precipice to find the birds waiting for their journey to continue. They drove on to Carson City, where cheering miners and townspeople paid plenty for the rare delicacy in time for Holiday meals.

Hooker’s hunch had been correct. He returned to Hangtown and later moved to Arizona, where he ended up a successful ranch baron, thanks–in part–to his creative Turkey Drive in the holiday season of 1866.